Based on Andrus Kivirähk’s best-selling novel “Rehepapp,” director Rainer Sarnet’s latest feature is a visually stunning deep-dive into Estonian folklore in the nineteenth-century. A tale of love and yearning set in a pagan world where werewolves roam the night, the dead return to have dinner with their families, and the poor farmers make deals with the devil to gain souls for their kratts, a magical creature comprised of whatever spare parts the farmer has- rags, metal tools, and animal bones- to help the family around the farm.
At the center of this richly rendered setting is Liina, a poor farmer’s daughter who falls in love with handsome villager Hans. Of course, Hans isn’t in love with Liina, as he’s fallen for the baron’s daughter, who lives in the mansion at the top of the hill. The trials and tribulations of adolescence and first loves become even more difficult when set against the backdrop of paganism and Christianity, and the looming threat of the plague.
Yet, despite a striking opening that gives a stark introduction to the bizarre kratts and this strange location, it’s Mart Taniel’s black and white photography that binds you in its spell. The film won Best Cinematography in Tribeca’s International Narrative Competition earlier this year, and it’s absolutely deserving. Between Taniel’s cinematography and Sarnet’s direction, November plays like a lyrical siren’s song that immerses you deep into Liina’s life of mud and cold, desire and longing.
This is a visual journey, one that is more interested in submersing its viewer in the pagan life of the nineteenth century. From the humorous superstitions of avoiding the plague, to the traditions of inviting the familial dead home to dinner, this is an otherworldly tale that incites laughter almost as much as it haunts and trances. The village people endure hardship and are often uncouth, but they’re not without passion and the way in which they dodge encroaching outsiders ushering in their Christianity is a delight.
As enjoyable as this pagan voyage is, it’s not one with mass market appeal. With an atmospheric storytelling style in the vein of The Witch or A Field in England, most will take issue with its methodical approach that takes greater stock in placing its viewer in the thick of this unique universe over linear narrative. Those who don’t mind an avant-garde approach to their storytelling will find a lush, multi-dimensional world with poignant thoughts on love and the soul while offering levity in the form of the kratts and the village witch.
November won’t be for everyone, but those who do embrace its eccentricities will hold onto it with ferocity. Taniel’s spectacular cinematography is a singular experience that feels transcendent. This alone makes the film worth a watch, but the source material and Sarnet’s direction makes for a haunting voyage through the dark past. Imaginative and disjointed, November is as beautiful as it is ugly; it’s strangeness will frustrate some and enrapture others. I fall firmly in the latter category.
November made its Canadian premiere at Fantasia on July 23, and will screen again on July 26. Oscilloscope will release the film in the Fall.