Before Marja pieni, screenwriter Eija-Elina Bergholm had written among other things Punahilkka, a pretty good portrayal of a troubled girls' institution directed by her husband Timo Bergholm. In her first theatrically released film (produced by Jörn Donner), Liisamaija Laaksonen plays Marja Maronen, a 30-year old bank clerk, still unmarried and childless by her own choice. Despite getting a promotion at work, she feels alienated and unhappy; something that is not helped by her problematic relationship with her parents and siblings who don't believe her life can be full without conforming to the marital expectations of society. Marja's boyfriend Jukka (Hannu Lauri) has his own problems and is often too self-absorbed to fulfill her needs. Anxiety keeps tightening its grip on Marja until she cannot take it anymore.
Even though the theme of woman's unhappiness about lack of commitment to family can seem slightly dated a first, the film touches topics much more general than that. The uptight Marja has developed a high sense of self-worth that has in a way shut her off from the everyday life experiences her colleagues share with each other at work, but she comes to realize that she cannot handle everything alone like she has always thought she could. On the other hand, the suffocating marriage of her dying father (Eikka Lehtonen) and self-sacrificing mother (Elvi Saarnio) shows that simply devoting oneself to the duties of family life will not necessarily lead to automatic happiness. An older generation's view is presented by Marja's loving grandmother (Selma Miettinen) who advises her to never fight against her own people but also has to face the fact of not being able to make it on her own anymore, albeit in a different context. The final scenes accompanied by a very 1970s-sounding song make it clear that the film doesn't believe in the possibility of completely self-sufficient but still happy life without caring human interaction.
The black and white photography looks good and suits the bleak mood well. The slender and elegant Liisamaija Laaksonen conveys Marja's emotions on her beautiful face effortlessly and the veteran actress Elvi Saarnio is convincing in the role of the mother with two very different sides, dutiful and liberated, that part ways at the point of her husband's death. Even though the execution of the ideas and the handling of the old theme of modern anxiety are not strikingly original, Marja pieni is an interesting example of Finnish cinema by female directors – I wonder if the ponderings about woman's place in society would be different if the movie was made today.
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