You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Karlovy Vary Review: ‘Nova Lituania’

A formally pristine, mordantly witty drama inspired by a loopy, little-known incident in pre-WWII Lithuanian history.

Karolis Kaupinis
Aleksas Kazanavicius, Vaidotas Martinaitis, Valentinas Masalskis, Rasa Samuolyte, Egle Gabrenaite, Roberta Sirgedaite, Julius Zalakevicius. (Lithuanian dialogue)

Running time: 96 MIN.

In the late 1930s, prior to emigrating to the United States, Lithuanian geographer Kazys Pakstas proposed a radical solution to what he saw as the inevitable eradication of the nation through its assimilation into the German and Russian spheres of influence: The purchase and annexation of a large tract of land on the African or American continent, and the creation there of a “backup Lithuania.” Eighty years later, filmmaker Karolis Kaupinis has taken this eccentric idea as the kernel of truth from which his beautifully poker-faced feature debut can sprout into an elegant, offbeat fiction that is both steeped in pre-war Lithuanian history and starkly relevant to our current moment — wherever nationalism is being invoked for political capital by powerful cowards. Which is to say: almost everywhere.

In appropriate 4:3 ratio (boxed in on either side like the beleaguered nation it examines), and in crisp black-and-white, ‘Nova Lituania’ opens with little context or hand-holding. It’s refreshing to come across a debut filmmaker with the confidence not to over-explain his scenario, but it does require a close attention, especially from the non-Lithuanian viewer. It is 1938, and fictional President Palionis (Valentinas Masalskis) is attending a military academy graduation ceremony, doling out sabres and patriotic words to the eager young cadets. Also in attendance are the Prime Minister, Jonas (Vaidotas Martinaitis) a worried-looking man suffering from heart problems, and uniformed military adviser Svegzda (Julius Zalakevicius), muttering bad news into Jonas’ ear. It seems there has been an incident on the contested border with Poland that has resulted in the death of a Polish soldier. “We’ll say they shot first,” blusters the President in chambers later, but no one believes that will halt the tinder-box buildup of tension.

Meanwhile, in a lecture theater on the other side of Kaunas (the Lithuanian capital while the Polish occupation of the Vilnius region is ongoing), nervy geography professor Feliksas Gruodis (Aleksas Kazanavičius) is expounding his theories on population density, the eventual collapse of the nation and the extinction of Lithuanian culture. His proposed solution — the relocation of a sizeable portion of the population to a backup state in Brazil, Angola, Quebec or Alaska — has already been dismissed as madness by most authorities, but finds a reluctant, covert champion in the ailing Jonas. Together, the prime minister and the geographer form an absurdist, almost Beckettian two-man alliance, meeting in secret to further the fantastical plan, which gives this stone-faced film its touches of whimsy, like a road trip to the sea which leads to an impromptu driving lesson on the beach.

But this is not simply a fondly fictionalized work of imaginative historiography. It is also an inventive exploration of last-ditch idealism vs. fatalistic pragmatism, given more allegorical power by containing within itself its own allegory. Gruodis’ fraught domestic situation — which includes an invasive mother-in-law (Eglė Gabrėnaitė), passive-aggressive wife (Rasa Samuolytė) and a back room “occupied” by comely young relative Julyete (Roberta Sirgedaite) — indirectly parallels Lithuania’s worsening geopolitical conundrum, and Gruodis’ obliviousness to it adds another layer of mordant wit. The adage “Physician, heal thyself!” here becomes “Geographer! Get your own house in order.”

“Nova Lituania” is also formally striking. Simonas Glinskis’ photography feels both antique in its monochrome palette and modern in the poreless, ungrained luminosity of its digital imagery. It is classical, with precisely choreographed scenes playing out in frames composed as stringently as a territorial map. But it is also contemporary, in the occasional subtle wobble of the handheld camerawork. All aspects of its craft, including Audrias Dumikas’ meticulous, period-accurate yet also coolly minimalist production design, feel engineered to remind us that its themes straddle the amusingly bygone and the painfully present.

Of course, the idea of social engineering on this massive scale does seem categorically lunatic now. But Kaupinis’ intelligent writing and the engaging underplaying from the cast remind us of the relative normalcy of such grand thinking in an era when choleric men in flag-draped rooms redrew international borders and plotted to expunge entire populations more or less on a whim. And so, as pie-eyed and impracticable as Gruodnis’ plan might be, the film’s most scathing assessment does not fall on the twitchily obsessive geographer or his burnt-out, straw-grasping co-conspirator.

Instead, it is reserved for the men who operate without ideal or principle, here exemplified by the president, who hides the fact that the “glorious” reclamation of the historical capital of Vilnius comes at the cost of total capitulation to the Soviets, because he doesn’t want to “ruin the mood.” It’s a darkly comical moment, but then you remember that Lithuania did in reality subsequently experience 45 years of Soviet rule, and that unpalatable truths get spun by craven world leaders against the interests of their citizenry, every day. Like all good satires, “Nova Lituania” is very funny, until it isn’t.

Popular on Variety

Karlovy Vary Review: 'Nova Lituania'

Reviewed at Karloy Vary Film Festival (East of the West), June 29, 2019. Running time: 96 MIN.

Production: (Lithuania) An M-Films production, in co-production with Kino Studija, with the support of the Creative Europe Media Programme, the Lithuanian Film Centre, in participation with LRT. (Int'l sales: Some Shorts, Nijmegen, the Netherlands.) Producer: Marija Razgute.

Crew: Director, writer: Karolis Kaupinis. Camera (B&W): Simonas Glinskis. Editor: Silvija Vilkaite.

With: Aleksas Kazanavicius, Vaidotas Martinaitis, Valentinas Masalskis, Rasa Samuolyte, Egle Gabrenaite, Roberta Sirgedaite, Julius Zalakevicius. (Lithuanian dialogue)

More Film

  • Renee Zellweger Rufus Wainwright Sam Smith

    Renée Zellweger: Judy Garland Was 'My Childhood Hero'

    Awards buzz is building around Renée Zellweger for her performance as Judy Garland, emerging as a frontrunner in the Oscar race for best actress. But for her, the real prize was paying tribute to Garland, of whom she’s been a lifelong fan. “Nobody was prettier, nobody sang prettier…the adventures she had, [she was] my childhood [...]

  • Topic Studios

    Layoffs Hit Topic Studios as TV Division Relocates to West Coast (EXCLUSIVE)

    A small round of layoffs has hit Topic Studios this week in the television division, insiders familiar with the company told Variety. One of the insiders said three executives at the New York-based producer and distributor are out: senior vice president of scripted programming and Viacom alum Lisa Leingang, vice president of development Mona Panchal [...]

  • 'Downton Abbey' Music Gets 'Bigger, Better,

    As 'Downton Abbey' Hits the Silver Screen, the Music, Too, Gets 'Bigger, Better, Grander'

    When “Downton Abbey” fans hear that familiar strings-and-piano theme, a Pavlovian response ensues: Get to the television immediately, because you don’t want to miss a minute of the addictive Crawley family melodrama to follow. This week, with the “Downton Abbey” movie reaching theaters on Friday, fans can’t wait for their fix of Lady Mary and [...]

  • 45 Seconds of Laughter

    Film Review: '45 Seconds of Laughter'

    “Everyone is worth more than their worst act,” said Roman Catholic sister and anti-death penalty advocate Helen Prejean, and it’s with these words that “45 Seconds of Laughter” closes. It’s an apt sentiment on which to leave Tim Robbins’ sincerely felt documentary study of the therapeutic acting workshops run by his own theater company in [...]

  • Julie Andrews

    Julie Andrews Selected for AFI's Life Achievement Award

    The American Film Institute Board of Trustees has selected Julie Andrews as the recipient of the 48th AFI Life Achievement Award. The award will be presented to Andrews on April 25 in Los Angeles. The ceremony will be telecast on TNT. More Reviews Album Review: Samantha Fish’s ‘Kill or Be Kind’ TV Review: 'A Little [...]

  • 4127_D001_00007_RC Phyllis Logan stars as Mrs.

    'Downton Abbey' to Dominate Box Office Weekend With $30 Million

    The feature film version of “Downton Abbey” is heading for an impressive $30 million opening weekend at 3,079 sites for an easy victory at the North American box office, early estimates showed Friday. The launch of Brad Pitt’s space drama “Ad Astra” will land in second with about $20 million, while Sylvester Stallone’s action-thriller “Rambo: [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content