9 August 2000 | AldenG
Another undistributed high point of Finnish cinema
Kassila's "Niskavuori" is a masterful treatment of Hella Wuolijoki's Finnish classic of light historical literature.
Niskavuori is the name of the family and the agrarian manor at the center of this tale. The film examines a cross-section of life in rural Finland at a time when the last feudal generation was passing the mantle of leadership and doership to the first generation of the nascent urbanism and internationalism that would transform Finland within a few decades from a modest, primarily agrarian economy to a world leader in industry and electronics. The matron of Niskavuori must decide to whom she will pass on the manor -- to her son whose vigor and determination represent the new Finland but who seems to be forsaking his neurotic wife for an illicit liaison with the newly arrived schoolteacher? To the overseer of the manor? She has few choices for preserving what generations of Niskavuoris have built.
The chemistry among these three actors, and to a lesser extent the neurotic, nattering, eyelash-batting wife, is exceptional.
The film plays quickly, but along the way we see a variety of occasions and characters portrayed with Kassila's characteristic attention to detail: reaping and threshing, tea with the vicar, exuberant barn dancing, the telephone operator as consummate village snoop and gossip, the vibrant young schoolteacher, the master of Niskavuori torn between duty and destiny.
As usual in Kassila's films of this sort, the smell, taste, and texture of Finland fairly leap off the screen.
The dialogue is a particularly strong point of "Niskavuori", distilling the characters' thoughts to an essence of historical currents, to words one would never hear in such perfection from real people, yet which seem exactly right in the context of the film. They contribute to the sense of heightened reality, the awareness that we are witnessing not merely individuals in conflict but the colliding and swirling currents of destiny.
Satu Silvo is ravishing in the role of the schoolteacher -- intellectual, modern, and sensual all at once. Esko Salminen is the picture of Finnish manhood at the time, vigorous, boisterous, but saddled with the obligations of a society in flux and a neighboring Russia threatening to swallow the entire country as it would swallow all the Baltic states across the gulf. Rauni Luoma is thoroughly convincing as the indomitable but world-weary matron of Niskavuori.
This is a film that deserves to be seen outside of Finland. Because it is so richly and topically Finnish, it defies true comparison, but it is on the order of "O Pioneers!" or Troell-Moberg's "The Emigrants". It would play to the current hunger for substance and tradition, much as "My Life as a Dog" did in its time -- but this is a more serious film, a feast of historical insight and detail presented in an engaging and easily digestible form.