Pirjo Honkasalo, one of Finland’s most interesting helmers, has come up with an intimate, generation-spanning drama in “Fire-Eater,” which follows the lives and fortunes of three women — a mother and her twin daughters — from the Second World War until the present. Unfolding on the fringes of society, mostly in a rundown circus touring Central Europe, pic is colorful and intriguing on the surface, but the drama doesn’t cut as deep as it should. Quality item could well find fest bookings and Eurotube dates, but theatrical chances outside its home territory are decidedly limited.
Pic deals with the ways in which cruelty, repression and lack of love are handed down from one generation to the other. Saga of separation and betrayal lacks the emotional punch that could have made it memorable.
Born near the end of the war, Helena and her twin sister, Irene, are abandoned when their mother leaves the country with a retreating German soldier; the girls are raised by their grandmother (Vappu Jurkka), an ardent Communist who despises her daughter and who prefers to call the girls Vladimir and Illych, after her hero, Lenin.Eventually, their mother returns with a Spanish trapeze artist (Jordi Borrell) who decides that Irene (Elsa Saisio), the prettier of the two, is perfect material for the circus ring. Sirkka (Tiina Weckstrom), the mother, who has always allowed herself to be used by men, accepts Ramon’s decision, and determines that the “untalented” Helena (Elena Leeve) serve her sister as the twins grow to puberty. But Helena proves resilient and, in the end , more talented than her sister, and she secretly learns the art of fire-eating.
To clarify further the themes of generational intolerance, Honkasalo introduces another female character, a little girl the adult Helena (Elina Hurme) meets in present-day Helsinki in a framing story shot in black-and-white; this child, who desperately seeks the affection of which she’s been starved, triggers in Helena memories of her traumatic past.
Though dramatically not entirely satisfying, “Fire-Eater” is a handsomely produced and well-acted pic, with Leeve and Saisio especially good as the adolescent twins, and Hurme powerfully depicting the world-weary Helena at the age of 50. Weckstrom portrays Sirkka, the mother from hell, with true venom.
Apart from a rather perfunctory staging of the 1956 Hungarian uprising (the circus happens to be playing in Budapest at just the wrong moment), Honkasalo stages the film’s dramatic highlights with typical vigor. But while the film is lavishly packaged and designed, it can’t overcome its dramatic liabilities.