When Lolita Ritmanis was a little girl in Portland, Oregon, she didn’t even speak English. She spoke the native tongue of her parents, who fled the terrors of Communist Latvia in the years following World War II.
Now an Emmy-winning composer (and bilingual), she is on the Oscar shortlist for best original score for her rich orchestral and choral score for “Blizzard of Souls,” a World War I epic produced in her parents’ native country.
As Oscar voting begins today, Ritmanis is an admitted long shot for a nomination. But her win Tuesday night at the Society of Composers & Lyricists’ virtual ceremony, in the independent feature score category, ups her chances considerably. And a review of the past 20 years of Oscar score nominations reveals at least eight that contained “dark horse” nominees (anyone remember “House of Sand and Fog,” “The Good German” or “Mr. Turner”?).
“It’s a huge cinematic break, coming from my parents’ homeland,” Ritmanis tells Variety, noting that she is better known in this country for her work in the animation world (“Batman Beyond,” “Justice League,” “Avengers Assemble” and more) and as a co-founder of the Alliance for Women Film Composers.
“I wrote it the year after my dad died,” Ritmanis says. “He was on my shoulder, an incredible feeling. You have spiritual guidance, you have your craft, and brilliant musicians. And now to have your peers recognize this… It’s such a long shot, but I celebrate long shots.”
For director Dzintars Dreibergs, the choice of Ritmanis was surprisingly easy. “She has a very special bond with Latvia,” he says. “When Lolita sent me her first idea, for the teaser, it was great. And in that moment, I was 100 percent sure.”
Ritmanis, who has dual citizenship in both the U.S. and Latvia, is already well-known in the Baltic nation. Her father and sister wrote a song that “became almost like the unofficial anthem” during the fall of the Soviet Union, she says. Latvian citizens regularly stood when it played, both underground and later openly after the country’s independence in 1990. Since then, Ritmanis has often returned to Latvia to perform her musicals and concert works.
Dreibergs approached Ritmanis about the project in 2015. She began working with him over a three-week period in Latvia in March 2019 and then collaborated with him long-distance over the next four months, returning to Latvia in July 2019 to record with a 60-piece orchestra and 55-voice choir in Riga’s Latvian Radio Studios.
The film follows the story of a 16-year-old farm boy who becomes a rifleman in a Latvian regiment and sees endless death and destruction, losing both his brother and father, during the first World War. The war scenes are depicted entirely from the soldier’s point of view, often reflecting the confusion and uncertainty of the men on the front lines.
“The music gave such soul to the picture,” Dreibergs says. “The music tells us what’s happening with him, what his emotions are.” The film has gone on to become Latvia’s biggest movie hit in more than half a century.
Ritmanis also composed a prayer, “Grant Peace to Our Fallen Brothers,” which is sung a cappella under the end titles by the Latvian State Choir. It’s based on text from the novel that formed the basis for the film.
“This is my best self-expression to date,” Ritmanis says. “I am very close to my Latvian heritage. I have this strong tie to my parents’ homeland, and it’s very much an essence of who I am.”