Finland and the Soviet Union shared some complicated history over the last hundred years or so. They fought at least two wars against each other, give or take, and then brought the world the term “Findlandization.” In contrast, Estonia and the U.S.S.R.’s relations were more straight-forward. The latter forcibly dominated the former and the Baltic Republic did not like it one little bit. Although it tells an Estonian story, Sofi Oksanen’s novel has had great resonance for Finnish readers. In fact, former East Carolina University basketball recruit Antti J. Jokinen’s adaptation of Oksanen’s international bestseller Purge has been selected by Finland as their official foreign language Academy Award submission (trailer here).
One fateful night, Zara, a sex slave fleeing her Russian mobster captors, seeks refuge at Aliide’s remote farm house. The old woman is instantly suspicious, but she takes in the exploited woman nonetheless. As it happens, Zara did not make her way there by accident. Their tragic histories are intertwined, as the audience learns in a series of flashbacks.
Aliide was always a little strange. While she fell head over heels for the dashing Hans Pekk, it is her sister Ingel who turns his head. Yet, Aliide is more than willing to help Ingel shelter her former freedom fighter brother-in-law from the Soviet authorities. Frankly, she kind of likes knowing exactly where he is at all times. Decades later, that secret hiding space under the floor boards will come in handy again.
In a case of ironic symmetry, both women will suffer tremendously at the hands of Russians. Even though Aliide eventually marries a true believer, she still cannot avoid seeing the inside of a Communist torture chamber. Despite all the humiliations Zara endures as an unwilling prostitute, Aliide’s torments are probably even worse. As a result, Purge is often a difficult film to watch, but it is never exploitative or moral ambiguous in the ways its presents such horrors. Whether motivated by ideology or sadism, the reality of rape and assault remain the same.
Laura Birn gives an incredible performance as the mid Twentieth Century Aliide. A twitchy young woman in an apparent state of arrested development, she is not the sort of victim figure viewers can easily embrace. In truth, she has a bit of a Machiavellian streak, yet she still experiences more pain and degradation than anyone could possibly deserve.
Jokinen is not afraid to confront his audience with all manner atrocities. Nonetheless, he also shows a deft touch with the quiet moments occasionally stolen by the Estonian lovers. He clearly differentiates each time period without resorting to distracting visual gimmicks, balancing each narrative relatively evenhandedly.
Purge might be a dark horse contender, but Jokinen has Hollywood ties, having directed Hillary Swank-Kadyrov and Jeffrey Dean Morgan in The Resident, so who knows? It is certainly a quality period production, which often counts for something with Academy voters. It might be a bit too honest for their tastes though. Regardless, Purge would be an enormously worthy nominee, definitely recommended for patrons who have a chance to catch it on the festival circuit.