Lithuanian auteur Sharunas Bartas is the kind of filmmaker one would immediately be tempted to label “pretentious” and “self-indulgent” because there is absolutely no concession whatsoever that he gives to the viewers in terms of the narrative, artistic, political and personal ambitions of his films, burying them deeply within their part-hyper real and part-surreal constructs. All his films have hinged themselves onto a particular moment in Lithuanian history – the nation’s independence from the USSR, just prior to the latter’s complete collapse – and they all deal with the loss of communication, the seeming impossibility of true love to flourish and the sense of pointlessness that the political separation has imparted to its people. The characters in Bartas’ films are ones that attempt in vain to put the dreadful past behind them, traverse through the difficult present and get onto a future that may or may not exist. With communication having been deemed useless, they hardly speak anything and, even if they do, the talk is restricted to banal everyday expressions. Consequently, Bartas’ films have little or no dialog and rely almost entirely on Bressonian sound design consisting mostly of natural sounds. Also Bresson-like is the acting in the films. There are no expressions conveyed by the actors, no giveaway gestures and no easy outlet for emotions.
The outdoor spaces are deep and vast in Bartas’ films while the indoors are dark, decrepit and decaying. The landscapes, desolate, usually glacial, nearly boundless and seemingly inhospitable, are almost always used as metaphors for a larger scheme. His compositions are often diagonal, dimly lit and simultaneously embody static and dynamic components within a single frame. Interestingly, his editing is large Eisensteinian and he keeps juxtaposing people, their faces and landscapes throughout his filmography. But since the individual images themselves possess much ambiguity of meaning, the sequences retains their own, thereby overcoming the limitations of associative montage. Another eccentric facet in Bartas’ work is the amazing amount of critters found in his films. There are puppies, kitten, frogs, seagulls and flies seen around and over his characters regularly. May be, not considering the specific connotations that these creatures bring to these scenes, the intention is Eisensteinian here too – to indicate that the characters have been reduced to a level lower than these beings, unable to either communicate with each other or be at peace with nature, devoid of the notions of nationality and politics.
In many ways, the cinema of Bartas stands in between that of Andrei Tarkovsky and Béla Tarr – both filmmakers concerned with chronicling life in a communist state. While the childhood memories, existential crisis and spiritual yearning in Bartas films directly has its roots in Tarkovsky’s films (all the films starting from Mirror (1975)), the visual (dancing in entrapping circles, meaningless glances and chatter over banquets and eventual self-destruction of the drifting characters) and aural (the Mihály Vig-like loopy and creepy score consisting of accordions, accentuated ambient noise) motifs, stark cinematography and political exploration are reminiscent of Bartas’ Hungarian contemporary. But, more importantly, it is the attitude towards his characters that puts him right in midpoint between Tarr and Tarkovsky. Bartas’ work has so far been characterized by two impulses – a warm nostalgia and sympathy for his characters that betrays the director’s hope and love for them, as in Tarkovsky’s cinema, and an overpowering cynicism, clearly derived from the (post-neo-realist) films of Tarr, that keeps remarking how the characters are all doomed and done for. This (unbalanced) dialectic is evident in Bartas aesthetic itself, which employs copious amounts of extremely long shots and suffocating close-ups. In the former, characters are seen walking from near the camera and into the screen, gradually becoming point objects eaten up by the landscape while, in the latter, Bartas films every line and texture of their faces with utmost intensity in a way that obviously shows that he cares for them and the pain that they might be experiencing. This conversation between optimism and pessimism towards his people also places him alongside the Armenian filmmaker Artavazd Peleshian – another historian of traumatized lives in a Soviet state before and after independence.
Praejusios Dienos Atminimui (In Memory Of The Day Passed By, 1990)
One of the finest films by Sharunas Bartas, In Memory of the Day Passed By (1990) is a somber, evocative mood piece set in post-independence Lithuania and opens with the image of large flakes of snow moving slowly along a river. This is followed by a shot of a woman and her kid walking on a vast, snowy plain and moving away from the viewer until they become nonentities assimilated by their landscape. This pair of shots provides a very good synopsis of what Bartas’ cinema is all about. The rest of the film presents us vignettes from the daily life of the people living in the unnamed city, possibly Vilnius, and from the garbage dump outside it. One of them presents a tramp-like puppeteer wandering the streets of the city without any apparent destination. Like the puppet that he holds, the people around him seem as if their purpose of living has been nullified, now that the national strings that had held and manipulated them so far have been severed. Consequently, there are many shots that deal with religion and the intense Faith that these people seem to be having, perhaps suggesting a yearning for the replacement of a superior power that guides them. Bartas suffuses the film with diagonal compositions indicative of a fallen world – a world that can go nowhere but the abyss. Appropriately, the film closes with a variation of its opening image: flakes of snow flowing downriver – an apt metaphor for the many nations that would drift without a base after the disintegration of the Soviet Union.
Trys Dienos (Three Days, 1991)
Three Days (1991), Bartas’ maiden feature length work, unfolds in a harbor town in Lithuania where two men and a women search for a shelter in the largely uncaring place, possibly to make love. The first Bartas film to feature his would-be collaborator (and muse) Yekaterina Golubeva, Three Days plays out as a post-apocalyptic tale set in an industrial wasteland, complete with decrepit structures and murky waters, where both positive communication (Even the meager amount of dialogue in the film turns out to be purely functional) and meaningful relationships (Almost everyone in the film seems to be a vagrant) have been rendered irrelevant. Every person in this desolate land seems to be an individual island, stuck at a particular time in history forever. The visual palette (akin to the bleached out scheme of the director’s previous work) is dominated by earthy colours, especially brown, and the production design is highly redolent of Tarkovsky’s Stalker (1979). The actors are all Bressonian here and do no more than move about in seemingly random directions and perform mundane, everyday actions. Like in Bresson’s films, there is no psychological inquiry into the characters’ behaviour and yet there is much pathos and poignancy that is developed thanks to the austerity of Bartas’ direction and the intensity of Vladas Naudzius’ cinematography. The film is titled Three Days, but it could well have been titled ‘three months’, ‘three years’ or even ‘eternity’ for, in the film, all time is one, the notion of future nonextant and hope for escape futile.
Koridorius (The Corridor, 1994)
If Three Days presented people stuck in time and moving aimlessly through desolate landscapes, The Corridor (1994) gives us ones stuck geographically and drifting through abstract time. Bartas’ most opaque and affecting film to date, The Corridor is a moody, meditative essay set at a time just after the independence of Lithuania from the USSR and in a claustrophobic apartment somewhere in Vilnius in which the titular corridor forms the zone through which the residents of the building must pass in order to meet each other. Extremely well shot in harsh monochrome, the interiors of the apartment resemble some sort of a void, a limbo for lost souls if you will, from which there seems to be no way out. Consisting mostly of evocatively lit, melancholy faces that seem like waiting for a miracle to take them out of this suffocating space, The Corridor also presents sequences shot in cinema vérité fashion where we see the residents drinking and dancing in the common kitchen. Of course, there is also the typical central character, played by Sharunas Bartas himself, who seems to be unable to partake in the merriment. Conventional chronology is ruptured and reality and memory merge as Bartas cuts back and forth between the adolescent chronicles of the protagonist, marked by rebellion and sexual awakening, and his present entrapped self, unable to comprehend what this new found ‘freedom’ means. Essentially an elegy about the loss of a sense of ‘being’ and ‘purpose’, The Corridor remains an important film that earns a spot alongside seminal and thematically kindred works such as Paradjanov’s The Color of Pomegranates (1968) and Tarkovsky’s Mirror (1975).
Few Of Us (1996)
Few of Us (1996) is perhaps the least political of the already highly noncommittal works of Sharunas Bartas. Not that this film does not base itself strongly on the political situation in Lithuania, but that the now-intimate backdrop of independent Lithuania is transposed onto a remote foothill in Siberia where a tribe called the Tolofars maintains a spartan life style. It is into this rugged, almost otherworldly land that the beautiful protagonist of the film (Yekaterina Golubeva) is air-dropped like an angel being relegated to the netherworld. She seems as isolated from the people of this land as the Tolofars are from the rest of the world. However, as indicated by the incessant cross cutting between the worn out terrain of the village and the contours on Golubeva’s face, this mysterious, hostile and unforgiving landscape is as much a protagonist of Bartas’ film as Golubeva is. With an eye for small and intricate changes in seasons, terrains and time of the day comparable to that of James Benning, Bartas pushes his own envelope as he lingers on eyes, faces and landscapes for seemingly interminable stretches of time. Each image of the film carries with itself an air of a still paining, vaguely familiar. All this sure does bring to surface the experimental and, I daresay, self-conscious nature of Bartas’ work, but what it also does is familiarize us with the hitherto alien and draw connection between this abstract representation of protagonist’s cultural disconnection in Tolofaria and the typical Bartas territory of desolate, directionless lives lead by the people of post-Soviet Lithuania.
A Casa (The House, 1997)
The House (1997) opens to the image of a mansion as the narrator reads a confessional letter written to his mother about their inability to communicate with each other. The house and mother are, of course, metaphors for the motherland that would be explored in the two hours that follow. It seems to me that The House is the film that Bartas finally comes to terms with the trauma dealt by the country’s recent past that he has consistently expressed in his work. Consequently, the film also seems like a summation of the director’s previous films (One could say that the characters from Bartas’ previous films reprise their roles here) and a melting pot of all the Tarkovsky influences that have characterized his work (especially the last four fictional works of the Russian). Shot almost entirely indoors, The House follows a young man carrying a pile of books as me moves from one room of the Marienbad-like mansion to the other, meeting various men and women, none of whom speak to each other and who might be real people of flesh and blood, shards of memory or figments of fantasy. The house itself might be an abstract space, as in The Corridor, representing the protagonist’s mind with its spatial configuration disoriented like the chessboard in the film. Furthermore, one also gets the feeling that Bartas is attempting to resolve the question of theory versus practice – cold cynicism versus warm optimism – with regards to his politics as we witness the protagonist finally burn the books, page by page, he had so far held tightly to his chest.
Sharunas Bartas’ chef-d’oeuvre and his most accessible work to date, Freedom (2000) is also one of the most pertinent films of the past decade. Taking off from the wandering trio setup of Three Days, Freedom begins with a chase scene right out of genre cinema transposed onto Bartas’ highly de-dramatized canvas. The two men and women seem to be illegal immigrants who are on the coast guard’s wanted list. If The House was national politics distilled into a claustrophobic setting, Freedom is the same being set in seemingly limitless open spaces. The most rigorous of all Bartas films, Freedom is the kind of film Tarkovsky might have made had he lived to see the new century. Like the Russian’s characters, the people in this film are all marginal characters (and are often aptly pushed from the centre of the frame towards its margins) who want to escape the oppressive, unfair politics of this world and become one with nature and the unassailable peace it seems to possess. Alas, like in Blissfully Yours (2002), they are unable to depoliticize their world and start anew. The tyrannical past is catching up with them, the present is at a stalemate and is rotting and there is no sight of the future anywhere. Bartas expands the scope of his usual investigation and deals with a plethora of themes including the artificiality and fickleness of national boundaries, the barriers that lingual and geographical differences create between people and the ultimate impermanence of these barriers and the people affected by it in this visually breathtaking masterwork.
Septyni Nematomi Zmones (Seven Invisible Men, 2005)
The most unusual of all Bartas films, the pre-apocalyptic Seven Invisible Men (2005) starts off like a genre movie – a bunch of robbers trying to evade the police after stealing and selling off a car. It is only after about half an hour, when one of them arrives at a farm that is near completely severed from the rest of the world, that the film moves into the world of Bartas. Seven Invisible Men is the most talkative, most rapidly edited and the most politically concrete of all the films by the director and that may precisely be the idea – to serve as a counterpoint to all the previous movies. All though there is too much talk in the film, rarely do they amount to meaningful conversations, bringing the characters back to the hopelessness of the director’s earlier works. Like Freedom, all the characters here are people living on the fringes of the society – con men and ethnic and religious minorities – who seem to have sequestered themselves with this settlement of theirs. All these characters seem to be trying to escape their agonizing past and the politics of the world that seems to give them no leeway in order to start afresh (The heist may have been the last attempt at escape), in vain. In the final few minutes that recall Tarkovsky’s The Sacrifice (1986), we see the house, in which the characters have been living in, burn down to dust. But, unlike Tarkovsky, it is Bartas’ cynicism that overwhelms and he sees his characters as ultimately self-destructive beings that have lost all control of their lives and hope for a better future.