Laudable sincerity and an earnest analysis of the human toll of Stalinist horrors aren’t enough to raise “A Wolf-Teeth Necklace” beyond the limits of its arty and arch surrealism. Occasional moments of pathos connect in vet Lithuanian helmer Algimantas Puipa’s adaptation of the Leonardas Gutauskas novel about a middle-aged painter reflecting on his life’s pain and turmoil, but outside of home auds and foreign students of contempo East Euro cinema, pic’s foreign B.O. bite will be toothless.
Tadas (Vidas Petkevicius), the teller of the film’s rambling autobiographical tale, is a much-praised painter. He’s also a midlifer deep inside a creative funk that he purges through recollections of his dark past, which mirrors the darkness that befell the Balkan nations when Stalin was appeased at Yalta.
His childhood is recalled as a nightmare of degradation and deprivation, precipitated by his father’s arrest and imprisonment in a Siberian prison camp as an enemy of the state. This leads Tadas’ mother to a life of serving up sexual favors to the local cops and pols to feed and house her disgraced family. The young Tadas is sent away to live with relatives in the country, but even these pastoral scenes of youth are full of foreboding and dread.
Eventually, Tadas’ father returns and is forced to confront the price his loved ones have paid. The son he left as a fresh-faced boy is now a cynical, insolent adolescent, and his loving wife has been transformed into a bitter, hard-bitten survivor.
Though subject matter clearly calls for a seriousness of purpose, the tragedies and humiliations suffered by Tadas and his family become even tougher sledding than they need to be, primarily due to the lack of any counterbalancing humor. Sole exception is a passage involving a ragtag gang of teens who create a street theater with Tadas and his slatternly girlfriend of the moment.
A heavy-handed visual approach also drowns the scenes’ drama with garish, self-conscious color schemes. Bathing scenes of nature in overlit, heavily filtered bright yellows and purples, Puipa actually diminishes the power of the story’s surrealistic retelling of the past. With no anchor in reality, and a failure to modulate the tenor or tone of the tale’s grim episodes, pic is akin to listening to someone telling you about their dreams for almost two hours.