Eye For Film >> Movies >> Pilgrims (2021) Film Review
Reviewed by: Nikola Jovic
Journeys of self-discovery usually involve expeditions through unexplored lands, but when you’re a stranger to yourself, you can be a pilgrim even in your backyard. This year’s winner of the Horizons award at Venice, which is currently playing at Belgrade FAF (Auteur Film Festival), directed by Laurynas Bareisa, makes for a solemn experience with chilling realism that will at times be punctuated by instances of dark humour to ease the atmosphere.
Paulius (Giedrius Kiela) is a loveable middle-aged wastrel, haunted by the memories of his dead brother Mateus, who was murdered four years ago, which put him in a bad state of depression. The perpetrators have been caught, the witnesses have delivered their statements, the jurors have deliberated and for the rest of the world, the case was closed. But for Paulius and Indre (Gabija Bargailaite), Mateus’s girlfriend, the memories of their loved one are just as fresh. Because he can’t put those memories to rest, Paulius asks Indre to join him in a sort-of pilgrimage, where they visit all the last places where Mateus was, that very night, before the kidnapping and eventual murder, trying to relive and retrace all the steps leading up to the event. Although the places have an innocent look to them, the process starts revealing new details about the possible outcomes, but what becomes even more apparent as they move forward is that the final piece needed for closure is located inside themselves, and no answer is going to fill that hole.
Early on, we’re becoming aware that this isn’t simply a tale about a particular incident, but rather, a story about a whole town subsumed by this veil of moral bankruptcy. At first, the film sets this up aesthetically by opting for long takes that isolate the subjects and building tension via optical zooms that slowly take us on an exploration of this small town, that is on the surface idyllic, but held together by dark secrets.
In a way, all of these people participated in the event in one way or another, making a murder almost a common fashion that can be excused. This sort of moral ambivalence is upheld by the total omission of the traditional score and having the long takes accompanied by some great sound design choices. With all of this setup, when you get to see a man half-smiling right after retelling the story of a rape that happened at a place that was on his way to school, or simply owning and driving the car in which his friend has been murdered, you get the feeling that characters are way too comfy in all of that mud, and the film has that feeling as well. By managing to find some dark humour in all of this, Bareisa successfully contrasts the slow long takes and great blocking, making it a well-balanced watch that will engage you on multiple fronts despite its withholding of many common cinematic devices to facilitates its ambivalence. But it’s exactly that ambivalence makes for one of its biggest drawbacks as well.
Pilgrimages are usually about the inner journey of a person, where exploration of the unknown places coincides with the uncovering of the hidden parts of yourself. Pilgrims checks that box, although loosely, but it’s exactly in that ‘loose’ part where the problems begin. By exploring unknown territory you’re not exactly aware of how much there is to go. Your will is being tested and you don’t know exactly whether the journey could continue for a day or if what you’re looking for is just around the corner.
The film shares this sentiment, but only by making the small town more alien and veiled, and by doing that, it also starts telling the story about the place and webs of deceit, interests, lies, and dark side of morality. It ceases to be an emotional journey and flirts with dwelling on the town as a collective. Only to, near the end, once the truth of the matter gets settled, shift back into the inner world and imply that not only will Paulius not ever be satisfied by any answer, but that maybe he was holding on by fostering a lot of delusions in his mind, because that is his only connection to Indre. Or maybe not, all of this is vague and dealt with briefly and in sketches. With that shift, the film invites us to reexamine the thematic foundations on which the whole story is built. This way, we haven’t explored ‘the evil beneath the idyllic surface’ motif, made even worse by the fact that it’s a common theme explored by so many cinematic heavyweights, that it can’t be left half-done; but we also haven’t dealt enough with that inner world and the relationship driving it forward. You can see that Bareisa’s heart is more in the emotional journey of the two protagonists, but in order to live up to the title of the film, he gets sidetracked a little.
Having said that, although the thematic approach could be considered ambivalent or confused, the film leaves no loose ends. That, coupled with a great aesthetic approach and some good performances this makes for an engaging watch. Giedrius Kiela does a particularly good job of developing nervous ticks for the character of Paulius, which adds a subtle layer to a great performance, that will make us empathise with his loss and sadness in one scene, and have us laughing in the next one. Even as he is rendered as a blurry gray dot in the background of the shot, he still manages to be funny, which isn’t only working of great character development, but also great aesthetic sensibilities to know when withholding does more than to actually show something.Reviewed on: 04 Dec 2021