Cinema is a vehicle for investigating historical scars in “Isaac,” a starkly beautiful drama about a filmmaker who returns to his native Lithuania in 1964 to make a movie about a WWII slaughter, and becomes embroiled alongside his schoolmate in totalitarian trouble. Adapted from a short story by Antanas Skema, director Jurgis Matulevicius’ feature debut — Lithuania’s entry to the Oscar international feature race — is a bleak, boozy nightmare of buried secrets, unearthed atrocities and anguished guilt. Its obliqueness may preclude it from attracting a wide domestic audience, but such haziness is part and parcel of a work about the lingering, lethal fog of war.
“Isaac” opens with the 1941 Lietukis garage massacre of 40 Lithuanian Jews at the hands of Nazis and their local mob-like collaborators. Shot in sumptuous black and white (as is two-thirds of the ensuing film), and with the sort of roving, wobbly, serpentine camerawork favored throughout by Matulevicius and talented cinematographer Narvydas Naujalis, this scene evokes the grimy brutality of “Son of Saul,” culminating with the murder of a local man named Isaac (Dainius Kazlauskas). That incident is a stain on the conscience of the killer, and serves as the inspiration for a 1964 movie to be helmed by Gediminas (Dainius Gavenonis).
The Lithuanian auteur is welcomed back to his homeland after two decades in America with great fanfare and enthusiasm by the establishment, as well as by Elena (Severija Janusauskaite), the wife of Gediminas’ childhood friend Andrius (Aleksas Kazanavicius), who now works as a crime scene photographer and is far less thrilled about his comrade’s reappearance.
Gediminas’ script is so accurate that it attracts the attention of KGB agent Kazimieras (Martynas Nedzinskas), who quickly comes to believe that Gediminas must have been at the 1941 massacre — and is, possibly, Isaac’s killer. Gediminas is thus constantly surveilled, be it while on set collaborating with his actors or at a pre-production party where drunken Gediminas and Andrius bicker about the former’s decision to abandon the country in favor of more democratic shores. The tyranny of the communist Soviet state is omnipresent in “Isaac,” highlighted by a meeting between Kazimieras and Andrius at a bar where someone offhandedly mentions the name “Lenin” and, for this meaningless slip-up, is beaten and dragged out of the establishment on Kazimieras’ orders, all as he and Andrius continue their casual imbibing.
Divided into three chapters, “Isaac” swirls and sways in harmony with its characters, whose lack of stability is due to both their constant alcohol consumption and, in Andrius’ case, to grief and remorse over sins for which he’s yet to atone. Matulevicius’ gorgeous chiaroscuro imagery recalls that of Pawel Pawlikowski’s “Cold War,” with which it also shares a foreboding sense of Iron Curtain doom and the inextricable and unresolvable tension between the past and present. Often navigating buildings that are on the verge of outright ruin via long, winding tracking shots that bob and weave through animated or zombie-like figures, the film is akin to a dreamscape of oppressive anxieties and agonies that can’t be escaped, forgotten or properly laid to rest.
Obsession, jealousy and shame eventually engulf everyone in “Isaac,” which — sparsely scored by Agne Matuleviciute and Domas Strupinskas — further creates an atmosphere of terrifying disorientation by having the tormented Andrius encounter a variety of real and hallucinatory corpses. Even when its narrative hits a pothole or two (such as the initial idea that Gediminas would abandon his American freedoms for this totalitarian wasteland), Kazanavicius’ film conjures up a surreal vision of post-war Eastern European dread and regret.