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Although aggressively retro both in terms of its subject – the annexation of Lithuania during the second world war – and visually, given that it’s shot in a boxy aspect ratio and in silvery black and white, this droll period drama from the Baltic is imbued with a very 21st-century arthouse approach to storytelling. Wilfully stingy with its explication, and seemingly made on the assumption that viewers will know at least something about recent Lithuanian history, it’s a fairly rarefied work, but rewarding for those up for a challenge.
Playfully padding out a rickety skeleton of historical fact with fleshy fiction, first-time writer-director Karolis Kaupinis creates a counterfactual drama set just before the start of the second world war in Kaunas, which was then the tiny nation’s capital as the Polish army had occupied Vilnius, Lithuania’s principal city, in 1920. Academic Feliksas Gruodis (Aleksas Kazanavičius), a geographer inspired by real-world figure Kazys Pakštas, has an ambitious idea to start a “backup Lithuania” somewhere far away – Argentina, say, or Angola – just in case the original Lithuania gets colonised by a larger neighbour (Germany or the Soviet Union).
While most think this is an entirely daft notion, when Gruodis accidentally meets former prime minister Jonas (Vaidotas Martinaitis) at a ceremony he finds a receptive audience for his not-entirely-addled scheme, which might just be the best hope for saving a culture suddenly all the more at risk from eradication. Meanwhile, Feliksas’s awkward menage at home mirrors the geopolitical situation, with his wife and mother-in-law locked in a domestic power struggle that makes the company of a pretty visiting relative seem like a far more attractive prospect.
Readers of Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, his counterfactual novel from 2007, would be aware that the idea of relocating a nation or tribe of people to a remote wilderness – for instance, moving the Jews to Alaska instead of Palestine – was a current concept before the war. Given that, it seems a little odd that this film, while contemplating in a wry, sophisticated way anxieties around nationalism and colonialism, fails to engage with the fact that nearly 200,000 Jewish Lithuanians were wiped out during the war. But maybe that’s a story for a different film.
• Nova Lituania is on Mubi.
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: Nova Lituania review – droll study of a Baltic state’s identity crisis | Film