Friday, December 03, 2010

Finnish Cheer: Rare Exports

All Pagan Claus ever gave kids were the willies. The candy and toys came after those mean old Christians co-opted him. However, the old school Santa returns to a small Finnish village with an army of wrinkly old elves in Jalmari Helandar’s Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale (trailer here), which opens today in New York.

Young Pietari is not looking forward to Christmas. Strange things have started happening since a wealthy American eccentric began excavating the nearby mountain. The reindeer herd has been decimated, leaving his hunter father distinctly out of sorts. The rest of the town’s children have also mysteriously disappeared, but oddly, Pietari seems to be the only one concerned about it. Increasingly obsessed with creepy pre-Christian Santa Claus legends, he is convinced the less than jolly old elf is behind everything.

Rare works best when exploring the strange Pagan precursors to Santa Claus. Helandar’s ironic use of the advent calendar is similarly effective. Unfortunately, none of the characters are sharply drawn and the film indulges in a lazy anti-Americanism that needlessly distracts from the story.

Fundamentally, Rare is a half-pregnant film. With its sorta-kinda heartwarming ending, it is not nearly subversive or edgy enough for midnight movie patrons, while it is far too macabre for audiences looking for remotely conventional holiday cheer. As a result, it is hard to ignore the film’s glaring logical holes.

There are some witty bits to be found in Rare, but their promise is never long sustained. Cinematographer Mika Orasmaa’s gauzy lensing also nicely captures a sense of child-like wonder and dread. Yet despite an amusing premise, Rare never fully gels. At least Helandar keeps it moving along, wrapping it up in a manageable eighty minutes. It opens today (12/3) in New York at the IFC Center.