Sunday, February 14, 2021

Slamdance ’21: Isaac

Isaac Kaplan was killed by a mob enthralled by an anti-Semitic ideology during the 1941 Lietukis Garage Massacre in Lithuanian, but he was also a victim of the Soviet Socialist ideology, before and after the fact. The truth, as revealed to viewers in fractured fragments, will be duly covered up in Jurgis Matulevicius’s extraordinary Isaac, which screens during this year’s (online) Slamdance Film Festival.

Viewers will see the murder of Kaplan unfold amidst the horrors of the massacre in the riveting and horrifying long opening tracking shot. Supposedly, Kaplan denounced his score-settling murderer to the retreating Soviet occupiers for his anti-Soviet activities. Obviously, the atrocities committed by the Soviets, the Germans, and their respective Lithuanian collaborators continue to fester and corrode the national psyche, but in the mid-1960s, you could only safely address the crimes of the Germans and their fascist allies—and then only cautiously so. Expat film director Gediminus Gutauskas does not understand how carefully he should tread when he returns home from America to shoot a film based on the Lietukis Massacre.

Initially, Soviet propaganda hails his voluntary return, receiving him like a superstar. His former lover, Elena Gluosnis is also happy to see him, because she hopes he will jumpstart her stalled film career. Her semi-estranged husband Andrius is less than thrilled at the prospect of his homecoming, but he too rekindles their friendship. As Gutauskas and his wife start production on the film, Gluosnis finds himself working more closely with KGB Major Kazimeiras, both as a crime scene photographer and as a photographic expert, analyzing archival photographs of the massacre. Struck by the similarities between the script and classified details of mass killings, Kazimeiras starts to suspect Gutauskas was present in a culpable capacity.

Except, nothing in
Isaac is that simple. The screenplay, co-written by Matulevicius with Saule Bliuvaite and Nerijus Milerius takes a story by Lithuanian émigré writer Antanas Skema folds into itself and even incorporates Skema into the narrative. It has been billed as a “film noir,” which it is to an extent, but there is also heavy absurdist and postmodern elements. Yet, we can maybe also discern the influence Andrzej Wajda, particularly in they way it portrays censorship and cover-ups as an act of violence upon the national Lithuanian conscience.

Isaac is also a flat-out knockout. Matulevicius starts in brutally stark black-and-white then shifts to crimson-tinged color, before eventually reverting back to black-and-white. He and cinematographer Narvydas Naujalis pull off some stunning tracking shots. They truly immerse viewers in the characters’ world and surroundings. At times, Matulevicius’s visuals are almost too eye-popping, because they can distract from drama, which is also considerable.

Severija Janusauskaite (who outshined everyone in
A Rough Draft) is terrific as the conflicted Elena. A lesser thesp could get lost caught between the flamboyance of Dainius Gavenonis and the existential angst of Aleksas Kazanavicius, as Gutauskas and Gluosnis, respectively. Both men also bring unexpected depth, subtlety, and complexity to the two rivals. We immediately assume a lot about both characters, admittedly much of which is true, but yet again, there is much more to each of them.

It is so refreshing to see a film that is so boldly challenging and intricately constructed. It also vividly exposes the hypocrisy of the Soviet era. It is a brilliant film that reminds us film can and should be art. Very highly recommended,
Isaac screens (online) through 2/25, as part of this year’s Slamdance.