Film Review: November

Spirits and demons afflict a peasant village in a morbid fantasy from Estonia.
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Like a folk tale only dimly remembered, November follows a dark path through dreams that shift into nightmares. Filled with startling imagery, it twists elements from familiar fairytales into an engrossing, if not entirely original, story.

Writer-director Rainer Sarnet adapted his script from Rehepapp ehk November/The Old Barney, a 2000 novel by Estonian writer Andrus Kivirähk. Set in the 19th century, but filmed in a sort of indeterminate time that could just as well be the Middle Ages, the story follows the peasants of a dirt-poor village as they struggle against poverty, disease and the supernatural.

These are characters from a Brueghel painting, farmers with dirty hair and beards, witches in ragged clothes, their faces lined with worry. They live in huts or in cramped log cabins they share with farm animals, their family treasures and stolen gimcracks hidden under floorboards. They are lorded over by an indifferent baron (Dieter Laser) ensconced in a sprawling mansion. He doesn't even bother to speak Estonian to the servants who steal from him at night.

Spirits dominate a world of swamps, streams, fallow fields and deep forests. They animate livestock and farm implements or drop by as ghosts dressed in spectral white. Satan can be summoned at a crossroads in the woods, where he steals souls to form kratts, talking heaps of shovels and hatchets enslaved to their owners.

Sarnet and cinematographer Mart Taniel reveal their world gradually, in glistening, high-contrast black-and-white photography, deliberately overexposed to blow out highlights and bleach whites into dream landscapes. Unexplained rituals and religious observances gradually coalesce around Liina (Rea Lest), a fresh-faced blonde in love with neighboring farm boy Hans (Jörgen Liik).

But Hans is smitten with the baron's sleepwalking daughter, prompting visits to the Devil and a local witch for romantic advice and potions. Love is a problem to peasants and nobility alike, as worrisome as hungry ghosts, angry kratts and a shape-shifting plague that drifts into the village.

November alludes to everyone from Carl Dreyer to Béla Tarr and David Lynch, its striking compositions commanding attention even as its narrative slips and stalls over repetitive scenes and situations. One of the most distinctive aspects of November is how it uses simple methods, not extensive special effects, to bring its folk tale to life. It's a worthwhile journey into a demonic world.

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