Arts Festival

Holy lies, cold truths and black bread

BOY caught in the anomaly of war: Marius Povlias Elijas Martynenko is Unte in Sharunas Bartas’s ‘In the Dusk’. Photograph courtesy Versfeld & Associates.

It is 1948 and Lithuania is caught between the tail end of Hitler’s cruelty and the as yet unrevealed horror Stalin’s slippery promises. Unte (Marius Povlias Elijas Martynenko), with his sultry, almost androgynous yet somewhat mongoloid features is the ponderously gentle central protagonist. He’s a son, yet not a son. A partisan sympathiser, yet not a partisan. A man, yet not yet grown. A strange and intense outsider in a story that touches his insides. And in a sense, his ambiguity reflects on Lithuania’s in In the Dusk, a brooding, soulful work, which features on this year’s European Film Festival South Africa, available online and without cost between 12 and 22 November, because of the ongoing pandemic.

In the Dusk is not an easy film to watch. Featuring devastatingly fine photography which immerses itself in the gloomy yet occasionally crepuscular light of Eastern Europe, it’s an essay on mistrust, struggle and the callousness of war, but it is also a paean to the land, rural in its aspect, steely grey and wet.

The bare and intense beauty of the characters, and how they are revealed to the camera, however, dramatically overrides the inevitable destruction in this tale of the poisonous interregnum of two wars. These partisans and peasants, people stripped of their understanding of wealth or even comfort, are like paintings. The performers are magnificent in their sense of texture, the guttural poetry of life blood and basic integrity, which underpins the conventional military flavour of war stories. These are real people.

And then, there are the two women, central to the tale. Each has what could only be described as a bit part in this film, but they hold the narrative together with a torsion that is fierce and haunting. The first is Agne (Vita Siauciunaite), who sports several chins and a large mole on her upper lip. But this performer has the dignity of a biblical matriarch. With just a gaze, she offers a vista of values, serene and anguished, central to this dank and complex tale in which the man she serves and loves, Jurgis Pliauga (Avydas Dapšys) is flawed but resoundingly real.

The second is Elena, Pliauga’s wife (Alina Žaliukaitė-Ramanauskienė). A white-haired study in bitterly drawn features and a lace collar, this potent vessel of disappointment takes possession of every scene in which she features with almost frightening robustness which flies in the face of her physical vulnerability.

In the Dusk is an essay about the cruelty of officialdom and the porosity of truth when your own life is at stake. It offers a masterful – yet unrelenting – reflection on the historical realities of Lithuania and Latvia, which remained caught in that impasse for at least fifteen years. Moored in the discomfort of extreme poverty and filth, freezing wet weather and gloomy prospects, it never trips up on its own sense of maudlin and drags you with the narrative, mesmerised.

In the Dusk is directed by Sharunas Bartas and features a cast headed by Arvydas Dapšys, Marius Jasiulionis, Marius Povlias Elijas Martynenko, Erika Račkytė, Rytis Saladžius, Saulius Šeštavickas, Salvijus Trepulis, Valdas Virgailis and Alina Žaliukaitė-Ramanauskienė. It is written by Sharunas Bartas and Aušra Giedraitytė and features creative input by Eitvydas Doškus (photography). In Lithuanian with English subtitles, it is part of the European Film Festival South Africa, screening online and without cost from 12-22 November 2020.

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