Walloping gut punch "The 3 Rooms of Melancholia" offers a harrowing docu look at war and militarism's wounds, as seen through the eyes of Russian and Chechen children. Edge-dwelling Finnish helmer Pirjo Honkasalo (best known for her docus and feature "Fire-Eater") demonstrates not just empathy for her subjects and ace lensing skill, but also bravery for crossing Chechen-Russian border to gather footage in a war zone.

Walloping gut punch “The 3 Rooms of Melancholia” offers a harrowing docu look at war and militarism’s wounds, as seen through the eyes of Russian and Chechen children. Edge-dwelling Finnish helmer Pirjo Honkasalo (best known for her docus and feature “Fire-Eater”) demonstrates not just empathy for her subjects and ace lensing skill, but also bravery for crossing Chechen-Russian border to gather footage in a war zone. Given refreshed interest in the region’s conflicts after the Beslan siege, fests should be happy to find room for this timely pic, but rarefied approach may limit theatrical prospects.

Film is divided into three parts, or “rooms,” as per title. The first, “Nostalgia,” was filmed at the Kronstadt Cadet Academy, a strict military institution on an island near St. Petersburg. There orphans, underprivileged kids and the offspring of soldiers aged 9-14 are taught how to march, shoot rifles and live like the soldiers most of them will become. Narration spoken in Finnish explains selected students’ backgrounds, while poetry written by one boy, Kolya, forms lyrics for composer Sanna Salmenkallio’s haunting score that beds the following two parts.

Shot on austere black-and-white digital stock, the second “room,” titled “Breathing,” reps the most powerful entry, unspooling images of a bombed and battered Grozny, capital of Chechnya, where citizens cling to survival amid the ruins. Gunfire and explosions puncture the soundtrack. In a damp and bullet-riddled apartment block, a sick woman hands over her three small children to Hadizhat Gataeva, a Chechen woman who runs a makeshift orphanage at a refugee camp in the neighboring Republic of Ingushetia. Honkasalo’s camera never falters as it records the children’s wails of despair and the mother’s grief.

In the final, near-wordless section “Remembering,” set in Ingushetia, more of Hadizhat’s young charges are introduced, including Aslan, an 11-year-old boy found in a cardboard box, unable to remember where he came from after having been raped by Russian soldiers. Aslan now identifies himself as Chechen even though he’s probably ethnically Russian.

Another boy, Adam, has memories almost too painful to bear: His father was murdered in the first Chechen War (1994-96), and his deranged mother eventually tried to throw him off a ninth-floor balcony. Footage of goat being slaughtered in this section may make distribution problematic in some territories.

One of those rare films that deserves to be called “poetic,” “The 3 Rooms” rhymes images — of hands, sleeping faces, news footage of the terrorist attack in Moscow’s Dubrovka Theater — across its span, adding a spine of formal complexity that enriches the emotional impact. Closest comparison might be the rapturous cinema of Russian helmer Artur Aristakisian (“Palms”) or Armenian Harutyun Khachatryan’s recent docu “Documentarist.”

Given how difficult it is for even hard-news journalists to get access to Chechen locations, production team’s accomplishment looks all the more impressive. Credits list numerous bodyguards and fixers used to smooth way. Last section, with prolonged shots of children’s faces and pans across landscapes, could be improved with judicious trims. Sound mix is just one of standout part of overall pro tech package.

The 3 Rooms of Melancholia

Finland-Sweden-Denmark-Germany

Production

A Millennium Film (Finland)/Lisbet Gabrielsson Film (Sweden)/Magic Hour Films (Denmark)/Ma.Ja.De Prods. (Germany) production in association with ZDF/ARTE Germany, YLE, SVT, the Finnish Film Foundation, AVEK, the Danish Film Institute, the Swedish Film Institute, the Nordic Film & TV Fund and MEDIA Program. (International sales: Deckert, Leipzig, Germany.) Produced by Kristiina Pervila. Co-producers, Lisbet Gabrielsson, Lise Lense-Moeller, Heino Deckert. Directed by Pirjo Honkasalo.

Crew

Camera (color/B&W, Super16-to-35mm/DV-to-35mm), Honkasalo; editors, Niels Pagh Andersen, Honkasalo; music, Sanna Salmenkallio; sound, Mart Otsa; sound designer, Martti Turunen. Reviewed at Venice Film Festival (Horizons), Sept. 8, 2004. Running time: 104 MIN.

With

Hadizhat Gataeva. (Russian, Chechen, Arabic, Finnish dialogue.)
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