Like “The Kite Runner,” Sofi Oksanen’s novel “Purge” found international success by recounting recent historical traumas — in this case, contemporary Russian-mafia sex-trafficking, plus the brutal Soviet takeover of Estonia decades earlier — within highly melodramatic narratives. Marc Forster’s “Kite Runner” film effectively restrained that novel’s lurid excesses, but director/co-adapter Antti J. Jokinen only fans the flames of “Purge,” turning the pic into a shrill yet dirge-like compendium of atrocities, whose good intentions are overwhelmed by sledgehammer content and execution. Finland’s Oscar submission impresses on some levels, but will have an easier time finding home-format sales than theatrical takers in most territories.
A framing device has grumpy old hermit Aliide (Liisi Tandefelt) finding desperate young Zara (Amanda Pilke) collapsed on her doorstep. It turns out Zara is on the run from Russian strong-arms, notably the sleazy Pasa (Kristjan Sarv), who forced her into prostitution. It takes a while longer for Zara’s reluctant hostess to realize this is her grand-niece, grandchild of the sister sent off to the Gulag for “crimes against the state” long ago.
The majority of the running time is devoted to flashbacks charting these two women’s very different yet equally horrific backstories. Young Aliide (Laura Birn) falls in love at first sight — an unfortunate early indicator of how flatly and abruptly key information is communicated here — with Hans (Peter Franzen), an itinerant worker at their farm. Alas, he only has eyes for her sister, Ingel (Krista Kosonen). Aliide must swallow her emotions, which only increases their intensity, as Hans and Ingel marry and produce a daughter, all while sharing the family house with sis.
The women’s parents are dragged off early on as land-owning capitalist traitors by collectivizing Soviet forces; after WWII, Hans’ underground resistance work makes him an enemy, too. Rather than send him off to inevitable exile or execution, the sisters convince him to hide, a la Anne Frank, within the house — a temporary solution that grows maddeningly interminable. Meanwhile, they suffer the consequences of protecting him, including torture and rape at the hands of Stalin’s loyal local minions.
A half-century later, Zara (a young woman in the book, though 21-year-old thesp Pilke looks discomfortingly teenaged) is duped into leaving home for a hotel job that proves illusory. Instead, she and other girls are forcibly tarted up, used as hookers and/or strippers, beaten and told they’ll be free only when they pay off their debts (which will never happen). Repeated attempts at escape finally lead to the elderly spinster auntie’s door.
Violence against women is a constant here, what with gang rapes, child torture and more. Much of this is so terrible, and plentiful, that artful suggestion would have been quite horrifying enough. But instead, Jokinen (“The Resident”) rubs the audience’s faces in graphic harm at nearly every opportunity, which actually lessens the overall impact, since so many dehumanizing acts on underdeveloped characters quickly turns merely lurid and gratuitous. By the time a climactic shooting is staged in slo-mo, Peckinpah style, all this shock value has become near-laughable.
While Oksanen’s novel (in turn spun from her stage play) was relatively lean at 300-odd pages, given its narrative scope, the pic often feels desperately compressed, leaping from one crisis to the next with no time to establish characters or develop psychological depth. The headlong script also muddles some important elements, such as Aliide’s motivation in marrying a nice-guy communist leader (Tommi Korpela). As a result, the thesps exert themselves heroically, but are too frequently in extremis to provide the subtler notes that flesh out a performance.
The handsome package is carefully wrought, but also, like so much here, frequently overwrought. There are numerous striking images, yet lensing and editorial strategies are often fussily stylized to excess in this glossy prestige passion project.