Review: ‘Touched By the Unknown’

Aliens from Mars who bear an uncanny resemblance to puppets on Estonian kidcult show "Dit and Dot" intervene in the lives of TV-station employees in '60s-set farce "Touched by the Unknown." Its script supported by a spine of in-jokes only locals will get, pic is unabashedly aimed at Eesti Gen-Xers up for a bit of nostalgic silliness.

Aliens from Mars who bear an uncanny resemblance to puppets on Estonian kidcult show “Dit and Dot” intervene in the lives of TV-station employees in ’60s-set farce “Touched by the Unknown.” Helmer Jaak Kilmi’s exuberantly slapdash, outright weird and yet strangely endearing pic is a follow-up to “Revolution of Pigs,” Kilmi’s co-directed debut. Produced by and for Estonian Television, its script supported by a spine of in-jokes only locals will get, pic is unabashedly aimed at Eesti Gen-Xers up for a bit of nostalgic silliness. “Unknown” will probably remain unseen beyond Estonia, but confirms Kilmi’s natural and confident touch with comedy.

Action starts with what looks like just another 1969 day in life of Mati (Tiit Sukk), a shy nebbish who’s first met on his way to work at Estonia’s national TV station where he holds cue cards for the much admired broadcasting personality Valdo Pant (Raivo E. Tamm). With a crinkly hairstyle reminiscent of Peter Sellers’ Dr. Strangelove, the real-life Pant repped a Soviet-bloc cross between David Frost and Edward R. Murrow.

Likewise, the puppets Dit and Dot (or “Tipp” and “Tapp” in Estonian) and their Shari Lewis-like cohort Aunt Rutt (Ulle Kaljuste), who feature heavily in plot of “Unknown,” were also actual TV personalities of the time.

What Mati and his co-workers don’t know is that aliens from Mars, Tipp (Peeter Oja) and Toivo (Robert Gutman), have intercepted the broadcasts from Estonian Television and decide they must infiltrate the station to find out why Dit and Dot look exactly like miniature versions of themselves.

Tipp takes up incorporeal residence in Mati’s brain and then, after putting Pant into a semi-catatonic state, helps Mati to take over Pant’s job as presenter.

Overnight, Mati becomes a national star, winning the respect and adoration not just of strangers, neighbors and co-workers, but also of his hitherto cold wife Piret (Maria Avdjusko). Unfortunately, the Martian independently falls for Aunt Rutt and starts pitching woo, resulting in much emotional confusion and slapstick antics.

Screenplay by Urmas Vadi also stirs into this nutty mix a fireman’s orchestra, a Communist Party secretary (Andrus Vaarik) with uncanny clairvoyant abilities, and — to top it all off — Jesus (Siim Soop) in a cameo role.

At times, especially for a non-Estonian relying on pic’s erratically translated subtitles, the whole shebang doesn’t make a lick of coherent sense. Nevertheless, cast and crew seem to be having a right old laugh cavorting about in period costumes, mimicking the cruddy video look of Soviet TV in the period, and perhaps scoring some self-deprecating laughs at the nation’s own expense.

Lensing by Janno-Hans Arro favors quirky angles and oversaturated colors to enhance making-it-up-as-they-go-along nature of the story. More unobtrusive but nippy editing by Tambet Tasuja lets laughs fall naturally into place.

Touched By the Unknown

Estonia

Production

An Estonian Television production. (International sales: Estonian Television, Tallinn, Estonia.) Produced by Andres Arro, Gerda Kulli-Kordemets. Directed by Jaak Kilmi. Screenplay, Urmas Vadi.

Crew

Camera (color/B&W, DigiBeta), Janno-Hans Arro; editor, Tambet Tasuja; art directors, Ain Nurmela, Inga Vares; sound, Ants Andreas. Reviewed at Black Nights Film Festival (Estonian Feature Film Competition), Tallinn, Estonia, Dec. 7, 2005. Running time: 87 MIN.

With

Tiit Sukk, Raivo E. Tamm, Peeter Oja, Ulle Kaljuste, Maria Avdjusko, Rainer Rehkli, Heino Torga, Andrus Vaarik, Kalju Orro, Robert Gutman, Anne Paluver, Siim Soop. (Estonian dialogue)
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