Summer 1944 in Finnish Karelia; after a long lull, the Soviet army launches an overwhelming offensive that throws everything into disarray. Martta has barely time to marry Aarne before she ...
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Summer 1944 in Finnish Karelia; after a long lull, the Soviet army launches an overwhelming offensive that throws everything into disarray. Martta has barely time to marry Aarne before she is evacuated with relatives Hilkka who has just given birth to a son Helmi Elisa, the children, and their grandmother. In the confusion of the retreat, the women try to hold together and cross the paths of Aarne and Arttu, the only surviving brother of war-widow Helmi Elisa. Implacably, war takes its toll of suffering and death among civilians and soldiers. Written by
Eduardo Casais <email@example.com>
Laila Hietamies (nowadays Hirvisaari) has been one of the most popular and prolific novelists in Finland since the early 1970s. A little surprisingly only one of her novels has been dramatized on the big screen although several have been made into stage plays. The sole Hietamies feature film Abandoned Houses, Empty Homes from 2000 is based on the 1982 book of the same name and was directed and written for the screen by Lauri Törhönen.
Like so many of Hietamies' stories, the film is set in the author's old home region in Finnish Karelia. In the summer of 1944 the Continuation War against the Soviets is coming to an end and most of the Finnish soldiers are well aware that they are not going to win it. A lot of civilians that were evacuated from Karelia during the Winter War have returned to their homes but are forced to leave again when the overwhelming Russian troops are approaching. The film examines the situation through a few ordinary people, both civilians and soldiers: Captain Aarne Heikkilä (Mats Långbacka) with a pregnant wife Martta (Jonna Järnefelt), the widowed Helmi Elisa Karhu (Sari Puumalainen) with a young daughter and the frustrated Medical Major Pekka Karjalainen (Carl-Kristian Rundman) whose path crosses with the others many times.
During the first half the film stays down-to-earth and plays out like a character drama rather than a battle spectacle. The technical aspects are well created and the nature scenery looks very pretty with all the green vegetation and wavy lakes. The atmosphere of defeat is not very desperate for the most part due to the women's gutsiness while confronting troubles from all around (a rapist deserter, several air raids, childbirth just before evacuation...) but when the focus is turned to the men on the front, the story gains momentum significantly. The battle scenes look adequately dangerous and the desperation grows quickly when friendly fire is equally dangerous as the enemy's attacks. I think it is often a good idea to tell a war story through the eyes of the lower ranks as opposed to decorated Generals and Commanders; this movie works as a good example of such a solution. Likewise, we do not get to see the situation from the Soviets' perspective, which only adds to their sense of crushing insuperability.
In spite of all the good things, not everything in the movie is great. Namely, some of the acting comes across as a bit stiff and theatrical, making it clear that a half-hearted dialect is not enough to make up for the lack of natural screen presence. Also, the female nudity feels a little excessive because the audience knows to expect it right from the start; I mean, it is Törhönen's directorial trademark after all. The score frequently sounds too emotional, even sentimental, and does not rise above the conventional level of musical accompaniment in films.
Nonetheless, the story of evacuation and hurtful defeat should surely hit home especially with elderly audiences that went through similar experiences in their youth (I can't help thinking about my own grandparents here). Anyone looking for the home front's point of view in the matter might also want to give the movie a look. Additionally, the authentic filming locations in Vyborg and Hamina look very nice. All in all, Abandoned Houses, Empty Homes may not be the ultimate war spectacle but remains a watchable film with an emphasis on the softer side of things as opposed to non-stop action and heroism.
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