Monday, December 27, 2010

Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale

(2010) Directed by Jalmari Helander; Written by Jalmari Helander and Juuso Helander; Starring: Jorma Tommila, Onni Tommila, Peeter Jakobi;
Available on: Blu-ray and DVD

Rating: **** 

The Finnish import Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale just might be the cure for the holiday blues when you’ve had your fill of the season’s usual assortment of schmaltzy productions.  Rare Exports weaves its twisted story in an efficient 84 minutes, combining a tight narrative with believable characters and sardonic humor while skewering a ubiquitous holiday icon.  All of this is achieved without a hint of the artificial sentimentality or forced cheer normally associated with Christmas films.

Director Helander depicts a harsh existence for the handful of people who inhabit a remote Finnish village.  As winter approaches, subsistence rather than conspicuous consumption is the driving force during the holiday season.  The residents’ livelihood is based on the annual reindeer roundup, which will bring food and money to the region.  Day to day survival is tied to living off the land, rather than stopping by the local supermarket for groceries. 

The fun begins when a nearby team of American researchers excavate a deep mountaintop pit, uncovering something that has been buried for a long, long time.  Pietari and Juuso, two boys from the village, spy on the dig and speculate about the discovery.  In the process of snooping, he and his friend cut through the fence surrounding the excavation site, thus exposing the rest of the village to whatever has been unwittingly released.  This has direct consequences, as the reindeer that were slated to be rounded up are soon massacred by an as-yet-unseen predator.  Their parents instantly blame the Americans for neglecting the fence and allowing wolves to escape and kill the reindeer.   The boys quickly conspire to keep their part a secret, as the true cause of the mishap.    

So, what does all this have to do with Santa Claus?  While Juuso is the consummate skeptic, Pietari only recently learned that Santa Claus did not exist, and doesn’t seem so confident about this knowledge.  This prompts him to do his own research about the real Santa Claus, who turns out to be a far cry from the rotund, jolly elf popularized by the Coca Cola Company.  According to ancient folklore, Santa Claus had more sinister origins, grounded in the Finnish legend of Joulupukki.  This being was not interested in giving out presents to all of the world’s good little boys and girls, but exacting horrific punishment on children who misbehaved.  After learning about the true history, guilt-wracked Pietari is convinced that the not-so-jolly old elf is now after him for his misdeeds.  When the village’s children start vanishing one by one, Pietari realizes that it’s up to him to set things right.

Rare Exports is unconventional by American standards, devoting a fair amount of time to learn about the main characters.  The details about Pietari and his widower father Rauno seem worthy of a brooding family drama, rather than a horror film.  The strange goings-on in the village are contrasted with the real-life concerns that Rauno and the other village leaders face, as they owe the equivalent of $85,000 for the dead reindeer herd, with no apparent means of making up the difference.  The story shifts into high gear about halfway in, after Rauno captures the culprit in an illegal wolf trap, only to discover something very different and very alive.

Rare Exports is played straight, with a few flourishes of dark humor thrown in.  One of the running gags is that virtually the only thing left to eat are the gingerbread cookies that Rauno bakes for himself and his son.  Most of the violence is implied, rather than explicit, which might be a turnoff for some hardcore gore fans.  Unlike an American production, the focus is not on quick scares and gross-out thrills, but character development and building a story that follows through on a uniquely bizarre premise.  

The surreal scene of (Minor spoiler alert: highlight “invisible” text to view) 198 feral naked Santa’s helpers trudging through the snow ensures us that this film wasn’t a Hollywood product, churned out by committee.  Even if the climax seems a bit conventional compared to the events that preceded it, stick around.  Rare Exports rewards you with an ending that more than delivers, and serves as a fitting conclusion.  You may never look at St. Nick the same way again.

On a side note, today’s review marks a mini-milestone for Cinematic Catharsis.  I was fortunate enough to catch Rare Exports during its extremely limited theatrical release, so I’m actually discussing a first run film this time.  At the time of this posting, there was no scheduled DVD release, but I suspect it should become available before 2011 is too far along.

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