Thursday, May 17, 2018

SIFF ’18: The Eternal Road

Scandinavians have a calm, quiet image, but Finnish history in the early 20th Century was anything but. The Whites fought the Soviet back Reds in their 1918 Civil War, but Finns fought for their very existence against the invading Soviets during the Winter War of 1939 and the subsequent Continuation War. In between, an estimated 6,000 Finnish Americans immigrated to the USSR out of socialist solidarity. Jussi Ketola did not join them voluntarily, but as a “guest” of the workers’ paradise, he is not allowed to leave. Unfortunately, he is not exactly comfortable there, nor is he warmly welcomed either in Antti- Jussi Annila’s The Eternal Road (trailer here), which screens during the Seattle International Film Festival.

Rugged, taciturn Ketola is assumed to hold vaguely socialist sympathies, but he is also a farmer, so he was drafted by the Whites, before immigrating to America, only to return during the Great Depression. Unfortunately, that gives him little credit with the White score-settlers, who threaten to lynch him near the Soviet border. The good news is he escapes alive. The bad news is he wakes up Petrozavodsk, where a NKVD officer rather playfully informs Ketola he is suspected of being a spy. It is not that they really believe he arrived with a bullet in his side to commit espionage, but it is a way of exerting control over him.

The cheerfully sinister Kallonen wants Ketola to inform on his new hosts at Hopea, a collective farm operated by Finnish-American Christian socialists. They believe in Stalin’s Russia, even though they are believers, but as the Purges start escalating in the mid-1930s, it will only be a matter of time before they wind up on the chopping block. However, Ketola makes a new life for himself there, marrying the widowed Sara and adopting her eight-year daughter Mary. For six years, he manages to keep Kallonen at bay, but 1936 will be an ugly and tragic time for everyone on the collective farm.

Based on fact, Eternal Road shines a spotlight on some little-known history. You do not hear very much about the American immigrants to the Soviet Union, because that is exactly how Stalin wanted it. The very idea of a Christian collective farm in Stalinist Russia also boggles the mind, but such institution was obviously surgically removed from all Soviet media and memory as well. Even more fundamentally, the film reminds us just how predatory and belligerent the USSR behaved towards Finland during the inter-war era.

Ketola is definitely a strong silent time, but as the epic everyman, Tommi Korpela broods and slow-burns like nobody’s business. However, it is Hannu-Pekka Björkman who really lands the knock-out punch as the jovially evil Kallonen. He is truly one of the year’s great villains, but it is important to note, everything he does is grounded in historical truth. Somewhere between the two poles of Korpela and Björkman, Danish Sidse Babett Knudsen (probably the most recognizable cast-member, from Borgen, Westworld, and 1864) anchors the film as the passionate but down-to-earth Sara.

Annila helms with a sure-hand, capturing the complexities of the era, while depicting Soviet brutality in powerful, unambiguous terms. This is a sweeping epic, but the practical matter-of-factness with which the characters face their crises and carry on is rather touching. Very highly recommended, The Eternal Road screens tomorrow (5/18), Tuesday (5/22), and Wednesday (5/23), as part of this year’s SIFF.