After her enigmatic second feature, black comedy “The Python,” Latvian director Laila Pakalnina returns to her docu roots with the real-life road movie “The Bus.” Film essentially charts the vehicle’s journey as it makes its way from Tallinn, Estonia to Kaliningrad, Russia, stopping in Latvia and Lithuania, with occasional disembarkations to take in scenery along the way. Though elegantly framed and lulling like long-haul travel itself, “The Bus” takes no big ideas on board, resulting in little more than a placid travelogue. Helmer’s reputation is likely to pull pic into select fest stations before TV destinations.
Driven by two Estonians, Grigori Bahharev and Peeter Tiido, taking turns at the wheel, the Eurolines double-decker of the title starts out in a dreary Tallinn terminal where an assortment of passengers get on board. One seemingly drunk couple spend most of their journey cuddling. A man in a Che Guevara t-shirt sleeps through most of the trip. Others stare out the window or slyly look at the camera as it tracks up and down the aisles.
Affection for ordinary people shines through, particularly in posed portraits where various subjects stand and stare back at the lens for 30-seconds or so, little filmic snapshots that often end with laughter and smiles breaking through. One set of border guards decide they’ve had enough standing still and break the spell by demanding from the filmmakers a complete list of who’s who. Otherwise, no one is formally interviewed, and no subtitles introduce or name any of the subjects.
Indeed, the tagline on the film’s publicity material in Cannes, “No action, no heroes,” pretty much sums it up. Although shifts in scenery and language as the bus goes through four countries provide a modicum of drama, pic offers little more than a minor-key geography lesson with understated observation of differing countries. While transit through the three Baltic nations which just joined the EU goes off without a hitch, the mood darkens slightly when the bus hits the Russian border. One long take of the unmoving group standing in line at Russian passport control speaks volumes about the very different social climate in the still paranoid republic.
Super 16 lensing by troika of cameramen favors stately tripod shots, with the odd bit of hand-held pacing. Short running time gets across flavor of travel’s dead time without actually becoming a bore itself.