Sunday, March 23, 2014

Film Review: The Excursionist

"The Excursionist"  **** (out of ****)

There have been so many stories dealing with the cruel and harsh treatment so many had to endure due to Soviet Communism. After WW2 as the Soviets marched to Germany they never left the countries they had to go through to get there. They caused so much misery for so many people who never wanted them there to begin with.

The Lithuanian film "The Excursionist" (Ekskursante, 2014) is an emotionally gripping true story dealing with the hardships an 11 year old girl, Masha (Anastasija Marcenkaite) had to survive during this time.

The film premiered in Chicago at the 17th annual European Union Film Festival to a sold-out crowd. It is an remarkable achievement given to us by a country many Americans never look to for their cinematic pleasure. The fact that the movie is Lithuanian may be its only obstacle. While, it is true the screening was sold out that is only because a very active Lithuanian community in Chicago came out for the screening. Americans couldn't point to Lithuania on a map. To the American eyes countries such as Lithuania, Estonia, Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria are not really part of Europe. Europe is really only France, Italy, the United Kingdom and perhaps Germany and Spain. Because the movie is Lithuanian it will have limited appeal to American distributors, who will feel there is no market for this movie. However, if this movie were made in America, I'm willing to bet Oscar buzz would be circulating.

To put it simply the movie is a masterpiece. Masha, along with her mother, are on a train being sent to a gulag camp in Russia. The mother, who is pregant, dies before they arrive. With the help of some of the other passengers little Masha escapes and with the kindness of strangers must find her way back home to her village. Of course harboring a refugee is against the law. Especially someone who is not a member of the communist party.

Through the course of this journey, both emotional and physical, Masha meets good people along the way. People who will sacrifice themselves to help her. Of course, she meets more people who treat her cruely. Abuse her on an emotional, physical and most importantly, spiritual level. Our young hero is a Catholic. It is her faith and belief in doing the right thing which keeps her going. Through religion she find strength. She believes she will make it home.

Watching "The Excursionist" I am reminded of a Romanian movie directed by Nicolae Margineau, one of the great figures in Romanian cinema, called "Bless You Prison" (Binecuvantata fii inchisoare, 2002), I called it one of the best films of 2002 and one of the best movies of the last decade. These movies would make a very good double-bill, as both movies take place near the same time and deal with two characters who use their faith to get them through their horror.

The performance given by Anastasija Marcenkaite is incredible. What a gifted young actress she is. The entire movie rest on her shoulders. She has to express so much to the audience. The character endures so much pain and suffering, the movie really goes after our heartstrings, laying on the pathos. Still it is a challenging role. I am not familiar with this actress. I don't know if she has been in many Lithuanian films or not but she is a born actress. She will have quite the career ahead of her.

Director Audrius Juzenas has given us a masterpiece. I hope it finds distribution in America. This is one of the most powerful films I have seen this year.