Gently drifting between drollery and moodiness, philosophically minded Estonian pic “Magnus” is a profound emotional experience. “Inspired by true events,” this astounding debut from 26-year-old helmer-scripter Kadri Kousaar is well-mounted and occasionally visually innovative. Frank and funny characters prevent yarn from sliding into a morose malaise while it contemplates life’s big questions. Unfortunately, pic drops the ball in final and unnecessary reel. Film is currently suppressed in Estonia due to legal reasons instigated by an “acquaintance of the prototype.” Prominent slots at major fests are assured, but international prospects may also pay dividends for brave distribs.
Story begins as handsome youth Magnus (Kristjan Kasearu) and his dishevelled roly-poly father (Mart Laisk) take a ferry trip to a wilderness reserve for their first real holiday together. Flashbacks reveal a chaotic childhood where a sickly Magnus was present while his father took drugs and recruited women for German pornography. His sluttish hysterical banshee mother (Merle Jaager) knows her son is headed for trouble, but her admonishments are meaningless.
Aware that his divorced parents didn’t expect him to live beyond 16 due to a precarious lung condition, Magnus the child experiments with his power over life and death. Like placing a bet with God, the boy believes that his ability to complete tasks — like leaving school within a certain time frame — will ensure his survival through the day.
During his teen years, Magnus takes to “life-affirming” experiences like sex and drugs, but by his early 20s this results in biological indifference and then hospitalisation due to an intentional overdose.
Realizing that he has been remiss in his administration of paternal duties, Magnus’ wayward father takes his discharged son home. Co-habitation and the sharing of prostitutes and drugs only emphasizes their differences: Dad’s appetites are continuing unabated while Magnus contemplates suicide and spirituality.
Narrative gradually circles back to the opening ferry trip and while on holiday the two men merely co-exist. Pic reaches an unsurprising, but moving conclusion, but is then awkwardly post-scripted by an extended monologue from a principal character for the final reel.
Estonian pop star Kasearu is beatific in the title role and makes for a wonderfully bemused and sad protagonist. Supporting thesps are all strong but pic is completely stolen by Laisk’s beguiling portrayal of the shamelessly self-indulgent father. Laisk is, in contradiction of standard disclaimer, described in brackets, by final crawl as playing himself. He gives a seamless performance of a man enraptured by his own audacious behavior, providing plenty of laugh out loud amusement in what could have been very dry fare.
Helmer’s script and direction takes several creative risks and, except for the final counterproductive post-script device, all pay off handsomely.
Kousaar’s talent is enhanced by the good judgment of not being too timid with her creative gambles or overusing them as many first-timers do.
Visually delightful lensing by Polish cinematographer Pawel Sobczyk cleverly underlines film’s quasi-mystical dimensions. Music by Set Fire to Flames is evocative and, at times, uncomfortably piercing and hypnotic like a rusted playground swing swaying in the breeze. Tech credits are superb.