As a parent, how could you explain to your six-year-old daughter Stalin took her mother away from her, but she still has to worship the dictator like a secular god? Feliks Tungal can’t, so he tries to shield young Leelo from the worst of the truth. However, her incomplete knowledge also carries risks in Moonika Siimets’ The Little Comrade, which screens during the 2019 Cleveland International Film Festival.
It starts when the Tungals are forced to move from their stately home to a shack in the woods. Her father repeatedly explains this reversal of fortune is permanent, but Leelo just doesn’t get it. She will be even more confused when the NKVD comes for her school principal mother, Helmes. It is quite a bitter pill for Feliks to swallow, especially because the arresting agent is their former friend, Paul Varik. Of course, as the husband of a “traitor,” Feliks is necessarily under suspicion and the creepy, duplicitous Varik has a good idea of the potential evidence that might link him to Estonian “Nationalism,” like Feliks’ old Estonian sports medals.
Little Comrade is like an Estonian riff on Carol Reed’s Fallen Idol, but the entire nation has betrayed Leelo’s confidence. Siimets dramatically employs Tungal’s childhood perspective to give the film a fable like feeling, even though it is based on all too real events (and two autobiographical novels written by the real-life Leelo Tungal). We understand why she is so fascinated by the colors and pomp of Young Pioneers, even though the Party it serves is directly responsible for her mother’s absence. Indeed, we can well understand her father’s impulse to shield her from as much as possible. Yet, her trusting nature and stilted perception of Soviet life could be very dangerous for the entire family.
Leelo’s vantage point makes the film exquisitely sad and achingly innocent. However, she seems almost willfully ignorant of danger, whereas most kids have a reasonably well-developed intuitive spider sense. Regardless, Tambet Tuisk is quite remarkable as her father Feliks. It is a deeply moving performance that covers a wide emotional spectrum. Anyone doing that level of work in an American film would be guaranteed some awards consideration later in the year. Likewise, Liina Vahtrik is memorably brittle and vulnerable, but also brassily defiant as beloved Aunt Anne. Yet, Lembit Peterson outdoes everyone when it comes to grizzled dignity. However, little Helena-Maria Reisner is just too precocious for school as Leelo.
Little Comrade is a deeply moving father-daughter story and a timely history lesson (partly produced to help commemorate the 100th anniversary of the state of Estonia). Indeed, the extent to which the Communist Party prosecutes those who have symbols of Estonia’s sovereign history will confuse many contemporary viewers just as much as it baffles little Tungal. Very highly recommended, A Little Comrade screens tomorrow (4/3), Friday (4/5), and Saturday (4/6), as part of the 2019 Cleveland International Film Festival.