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A Casa (The House)

Posted by martinteller on March 23, 2013

This is tricky to write about.  It’s my first Sharunas Bartas film (I have others on my watchlist).  From what I’ve read, it’s something of a culmination of the work done in his prior years and not the best one to start with.  Kind of like trying to start Tsai with Visage.  The film opens with the image of a mansion, as voiceover reads a solemn letter to “Mother”.  As I understand it, “Mother” in this case represents Lithuania.  So does the mansion.  Apparently all (most?) of Bartas’s movies are about Lithuania and its relationship to the Soviet Union.

We see a man exploring the house.  We can only assume the man is the voice who read the letter.  There are no other spoken words (sort of… more on that in a minute) in the film, until the end when the letter continues.  He wanders from room to room, with a sadly nostalgic look on his face.  He sees things that strike us as odd, but don’t seem to faze him.  A man playing chess by himself.  A dog nursing her puppies.  A woman alone, performing a sorrowful show with hand puppets.  A fir growing in the middle of a room, with Christmas lights and people wearing animal heads marching around it.  A man (who happens to be Leos Carax) wearing a suit made of books, doing strange things with books.  A room full of naked children.  A room full of naked women who caress the man.  A naked woman who studies herself in the mirror.  A whole lot of naked going on.

There are three dining scenes.  In the first, the residents sit there barely acknowledging each other, tentative glances around the table.  The second is lively, with people strolling in and out, conversation buzzing (none of it is subtitled, so perhaps it’s gibberish, or just inconsequential).  In the third, they are all asleep in front of their plates.  Is it the cycle of a culture?

There are no answers forthcoming.  Although it took an outside source to tell me that there is something specifically Lithuanian about all this, it is clear that it is an exploration of a country or a culture or a history.  There are obvious connections to be made to other purveyors of “slow cinema”… Tarr and especially Tarkovsky come to mind.  But Bartas obliterates any notion of a narrative.  It is a series of bizarre tableaux that don’t appear to be connected, but may be thematically.

I have said recently that I can enjoy movies I don’t quite understand.  That is definitely the case here.  It appears that the film is swimming with symbolism, but a lot of it was lost on me.  However, you get the vibe of certain scenes quite readily.  Lost innocence, cultural isolation, censorship, military conflict.  More importantly, the images are fascinating.  Beautifully composed scenes with unexpected sights, studies of forlorn faces, crumbling interiors and stark iconography.  There are scores of intriguing screenshots I could have taken.  Every room contains something to chew on in your mind, and Bartas takes the time to let them sink in.  The soundscape is rich with heightened ambient noise or snatches of folk music… memories interweaving with reality.

I don’t know exactly what Bartas is getting at, but I get a very strong feeling from it.  It’s an entrancing world to spend time in.  And I also get the sense that one shouldn’t over-analyze it, that the symbolism is not as obscure as it seems (the ending is pretty clear, for sure).  I’m looking forward to more of his work.  Rating: Very Good (86)


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