The four stages of man are filtered through four directors’ eyes in “Vogelfrei,” a rare bird among omnibus films that works beautifully thanks to talented helmers unafraid to express their own personalities, yet aware of how they fit together. Taking one person’s story from childhood to old (well, middle-old) age, each segment focuses on a day in the life of Teodors, capturing his distinguishing traits. Handsome and rigorous, without a whiff of the experimental, the pic took top honors at Latvia’s national fest and deserves a healthy life elsewhere on the circuit.
Opening offers multiple dictionary definitions of “vogelfrei,” from the term used to mark the start of the bird-hunting season to “birds not allowed” or “free as a bird.” Teodors isn’t bird-like in any physical sense, but both his affinity with the creatures as well as a shared sense of quiet individualism informs all four segments. Each is set in a different season, and though it’s clear Teodors is growing older, helmers avoid datable markers and period detail.
First section opens in a forest in summer, where children play games and teasingly torment one another. Helmer Janis Kalejs maintains a sense of bucolic fun while introducing notes of innocence lost, especially involving Klera, the lone girl, who spies two post-coital teens sleeping in a car. Later, her dust-smeared lips reveal disturbing signs of prepubescent sexuality when she wrestles Teodors (Igors Suhoverhovs) to the ground for a kiss.
As a teen (Karlis Spravniks), Teodors is even more apart from his peers. Though he’s a hockey champ and member of the drama society, his natural reticence holds him back. With his large, sad eyes, he’s unable to connect with those around him, and doubly hurt when his attempts are betrayed. Director Gatis Smits mixes a little of the Dardenne Brothers with Gus Van Sant, but avoids a sense of the derivative.
Third section, by Janis Putnins, is the most deliberately static of the four. Teodors (Ints Teterovskis) is a p.r. exec, hustling others about image and perception while struggling with his own isolation. He still hasn’t learned how to form and keep friendships, and the speciousness of his line of work makes it more difficult for him to hold on to genuine emotions.
By old age, Teodors (Liubomiras Lauciavicius) has come to grips with his life and personality. A part-time organist at a church in the countryside, he’s hired by a couple of city types (Girts Krumins, Armands Reinfelds) to capture a hawk. But the hunt becomes a game as Teodors contemptuously makes clear that his bond with a magnificent owl is far more genuine and fulfilling than anything the two so-called sophisticates could appreciate.
Helmer Anna Viduleja allows this section to soar like the birds themselves, deftly playing with ideas of captivity and freedom. Opening and closing the pic in the country works both thematically and stylistically, providing a stark contrast with the cement and concrete surrounding the teenage Teodors, and the frigid sleekness of his adult apartment.
Except for the final sequence, the thesps are largely amateurs: Spravniks is particularly impressive as the conflicted, often bewildered teen. All four directors studied in North America or the U.K., and all make their living through commercials (only Putnins has a feature to his name, the unreleased “Hide-and-Seek”). Lensing, including segs shot by Andrij Parekh (“Half-Nelson”), is uniformly rich and textured, and sound quality tops.