The intimidating task of adapting and directing Estonia’s landmark novel of the 20th century doesn’t appear to have fazed Tanel Toom in his feature debut “Truth and Justice,” nor has it challenged him to deliver anything but a respectful, well-made literary adaptation. Given that the film was one of six projects chosen by Estonia’s government-backed film-funding body for their celebration of the nation’s centennial, it’s unsurprising this rural epic, based on Anton Hansen Tammsaare’s eponymous five-part classic, hones closely to standard formulas, presenting archetypal characters formed in equal parts by their environment and their epoch. Box office records were broken at home following a late February opening, and while the film’s selection to represent Estonia at the Academy Awards was a no-brainer, its crossover chances on international screens will be limited at best.
Broken down to its essentials, “Truth and Justice” is the multi-decade story of an idealistic young farmer in the last quarter of the 19th century whose bull-headed determination to turn his problematic piece of land into a fruitful homestead makes him blind to the psychological toll exacted on his family. Conceived as an amalgam of the stereotypical Nordic male traits of intractable stoicism and emotional reserve, Andres Paas (Priit Loog) is the film’s lynchpin, a man so fixated on building a life for himself and his children that he never considers their happiness. For Toom, this isn’t merely a characteristic of the period but a national attribute with continuing resonance, tied to the Estonians’ attachment to their land which of course draws significantly on centuries of contested self-determination.
Putting aside a brief prologue set in 1896 and pregnant with introspection, the film properly begins in 1872, when Andres and his fresh-faced wife Krõõt (Maiken Schmidt) arrive at Robber’s Rise, the hilltop farm he’s just purchased that’s in profound need of attention. It’s not just the house that needs fixing, but the marshy land requires draining and the fields cleared of rocks. Two previous owners already bailed on the property due to the antagonistic nature of neighboring farmer Pearu Murakas (Priit Võigemast), which is why Andres, with little money to spare, was able to buy the land. But he’s underestimated the depths of Pearu’s perfidy, and the script does little to explain the spitefulness he faces. Andres thinks he’s convinced his neighbor to share responsibility for digging a channel to drain off the marshland, but Pearu insists the ditch be on his property and then surprises Andres (but not the audience) by controlling the flow of water. What follows is decades of tit-for-tat antagonisms and multiple appearances in the local courts, as Pearu’s malice goads Andres into tyrannical, “un-Christian” behavior.
The Christian element is important, since Andres is frequently seen reading the Bible; toward the end it’s proposed he’s turned mean because immersing oneself solely in the powerful words of God makes mere mankind’s words meaningless. One suspects this idea is developed better in the novel, whereas in the film the statement just sits there, passed over too quickly to accrue greater resonance. More successfully conveyed are Andres’ relationships with Krõõt, who sacrifices everything to be a helpmate to her husband’s vision, and his second wife Mari (Ester Kuntu), formerly the house servant. Krõõt is worked into an early grave just when she’s finally given birth to a much-desired male child after two girls; the vacuum left in the house by her death needs to be filled quickly, so Andres takes advantage of Mari, who good-naturedly agrees to temporarily look after the house and kids but thereby neglects her mentally fragile husband Juss (Simeoni Sundja), resulting in his suicide.
The women understand the need for kind words and loving support but the men are oblivious, fixated on their own spats and the need to pass their land on to their offspring. Surprisingly given the film’s length and the amount of repetition (whether of hardened relationships or establishing landscape shots), there’s little sense of drag, thanks in part to the well-cast leads who carry off their roles with conviction even while embodying monumental literary archetypes more than nuanced figures of flesh and blood. Only those familiar with the novel (of which just the first part has been published in an English translation) will know what’s missing, although it’s hard to escape the sensation of a more sweeping and profound text being stripped down to the essentials and half-dressed with some standard-issue social philosophy.
Budgeted at approximately $3 million, “Truth and Justice” is one of the country’s most expensive productions, reflected in excellent production design as well as an overall handsome package. Cinematographer Rein Kotov also shot the nationalist epic “1944,” going in here for a quieter sense of sweep, using the expansive widescreen canvas for frequent panoramas of the landscape as it changes through the seasons. The international cut is 16 minutes shorter than the Estonian version.