Between three powers and two women. Review of the film “City by the River”

Ansim has an innocent profession as a painter, and he is in demand of all the powers that change in a short period of time in the late 1930s. Patatos is replaced by a harsh communist power in his full Ulman times, then comes the Nazi regime … His intended is the Jewish girl Zisele, but the young woman’s father puts obstacles in love. It so happens that during this time, the handsome Latvian Naiga also appears in Anša’s life. Is there only one choice?

In the language of Latgalians

Although the director of “City by the River” Viesturs Kairišs claims that he wanted to make the film very fun and playful, he could not do without tragedy. With humor alone, no one will dare to show these events of the 1930s and 1940s, when the political powers in Latvia – the Ulman times, the Soviet occupation, the Nazi regime – changed almost in a flash. Well, if only the furious talent of the New Zealand director Taika Vaititi, whose “Rabbit Jojo” can still be seen in Latvian cinemas. If Vaititi “beats” the satire and parody elements in her film about the Holocaust, Kairišs’ humor is simpler, more loving and … more Latgalian.

Much more cheerful than Kairiss’s previous masterpiece “Chronicle of Melania”, of course, “City by the River” is. This is also the language of the screen – the film was shot in Latgale and the characters mostly speak Latgalian.

About choices

“City by the River” is based on the novel of the exiled Latvian Gunars Janovskis of the same name. By masterfully transferring the written word to the screen, Kairišs has achieved that the message seems almost autobiographical. The film is about choices that almost every Latvian had to accept at that time. Neither we nor the film director Kairišs lived in those days, and we do not realize what they would have done for themselves and their families. Kairišs also tries to show it in the film – the janitor tries to settle down in every power as best he can, the Jewish girl Zisele is entangled in communist clothes, but the main character Ansis tries to stand above everything. Here he is completely different from the main character of the film “Blower of Souls”, who clearly knew – he had to defend his homeland and, as a little boy, threw a rifle in his shoulder. Although Ansim eventually has to take up arms, he is still an artist at heart.

If at first it seems that Ansis is addictive, gullible and not at all wise, then over time it becomes clear that in reality he is already emotional, sensitive and intelligent, standing above all the powers that come over his city. Nothing is eternal, except that painters will always be needed (both street signs and plaques at the office doors, but someone has to draw), and it is not forbidden to dream. This is how Ansis dreams both of the artist’s profession and, of course, of her great love.

In matters of love, however, Ansis is very addictive – neither he is able to explain to his intended why foreign strangers are washed, nor does he understand what to do when another lady takes a naked bath in front of him. So Ansis tossed from each other, unable to really choose. Although the women – the passionate Jew Zisele (the film’s very convincing Czech actress and singer Brigita Cmuntova) and the most down-to-earth Latvian Naiga (home star Agnese Cīrule) – manage for themselves who he will be.

Merchant, Captain and Dante

Also, three men play an important role in Ansha’s life – his own father, who is sleeping on the bed of illness, Bernis, a Jewish merchant, Zisele’s priest, and the captain of the ship “Baltais gulbis”. Old Bernstein (in the form of Gundars Āboliņš) becomes close to Ansim only with time – at first he resists the boy’s love for his daughter, but my talent as a painter in him and helps the young man to create a real work of art. In turn, a more invisible role has been assigned to the Lithuanian acting giant Jozas Budraitis – he plays a captain who, like Virgil Annis, as such leads Danti through all the circles of hell. Also, Kairišs does not live without references to Danti Anša in his relationship with the merchant Bernstein – the guy makes him pose with “Divine Comedy” in his hands.

The real breath must wait

You have to feel in this film – it doesn’t captivate you from the very beginning, Kairišs confuses the viewer with an unusual camera angle and you can’t really understand whether a comedy or a relationship drama is expected here. The film takes a real breath in the middle, when everything is masterfully intertwined and then what is happening on the screen can be followed with great enthusiasm. The character of the main character and the message of the film are also becoming clearer.

Of course, the river plays a big symbolic role in the film – a boat sails along it, which changes its name at all powers, and the ladies of Ansis meet at it, and lives are lost. In it, Ansis symbolically throws a rifle with disgust, and it is in it that one of the most impressive scenes of the film is shot – as Ansim throws all the people, all the powers, ready to tear him here, to embrace him. But he would prefer to stay alone and paint – in his city by the river.

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