Wednesday, November 08, 2023

NY Baltic ’23: Melchior the Apothecary: The Ghost

The Baltics are now free and prosperous nations, where the rule of law is scrupulously observed. Of course, in Medieval times, justice was harsh and arbitrary in Estonia, just like everywhere else. When Melchior Wakenstede assists his sheriff’s investigations, he can hopefully prevent the arbitrariness, but there is not much he can do about the harshness. Life was getting good for Wakenstede at the end of his first film (also screening at the festival), but secrets from the past will separate him from his new lover, Keterlyn Kordt, while he tries to stop an escalating body-count in Elmo Nuganen’s Melchior the Apothecary: The Ghost, which screens virtually as part of the 2023 New York Baltic Film Festival.

Gerke once masqueraded as a man while working as Wakenstrede’s apprentice, but the apothecary easily saw through her disguise (like the audience) and fell in love with her. She now works as the nurse of a dying merchant, so their romance is almost out in the open. Unfortunately, she disappears right before their scheduled assignation after encountering a menacing stranger. Of course, Wakenstrede is troubled by her absence, but he must wholeheartedly devote his time to assisting Sheriff Dorn’s latest investigation. Apparently, Dorn is Estonian for “Lestrade.”

The night watchman has plunged to his death and Magda, the “sex worker” (as they were known in Medieval Estonia) he encountered during his evening rounds, also soon turns up murdered. Reportedly, they both claimed to see a ghost in the courtyard shared by Kordt’s dying boss and his lifelong friend. Shortly thereafter, Magda’s artist lover is also killed before Melchior’s eyes, the victim of homicidal sabotage. Suspicion soon falls on the parish priest, which is just fine with Dorn and the nobles he serves, but Wakenstede can tell better.

In some ways,
The Ghost is considerably darker than the first Melchior film, because the central secret is definitely sinister. Wakenstede employs some reasonably solid investigative techniques, particularly for the era, and his intuition is unusually sharp. We also root for his relationship with Kordt, who is sidelined for the majority of the film, especially if you have already invested in the previous film.

All three films were produced together, so perhaps scenes from all three were shot in close sequence, but from a viewer’s perspective, Marten Metsaviir appears more comfortable in Wakenstrede’s skin in this installment. He was a consistently likable lead in the first film, but here he inspires confidence. Maarja Johanna has limited screentime in
The Ghost (which will be rectified in the trilogy’s conclusion), but she makes the most of it.

As Sheriff Dorn, Alo Korve makes Dennis Hoey in the Rathbone Sherlock Holmes movies look like criminological genius, but the film has the benefit of numerous craggy and colorful suspects, played by Estonian character thesps, like Ursel Tilk. Nuganen still largely spares us the muck of Medieval times, but most of the cast looks very era-appropriate.

Despite the subtitle, it is made pretty clear from the start the so-called ghost is some sort of Scooby-Doo hoax or delusion. However, there is a touch of the uncanny to this
Melchior, which adds a pinch of distinctive seasoning. The resulting Medieval intrigue is still more akin to Cadfael than Umberto Eco or Dan Brown, but it is highly entertaining. Recommended for fans of period mysteries, Melchior the Apothecary: The Ghost screens virtually 11/10-11/19, as part of this year’s New York Baltic Film Festival.