BNFF Review: 'The Excursionist'

The Excursionist (Ekursante)
(Lithuania, 110 min.)
Dir. Audrius Juzenas, Writ. Panas Morkus
Starring: Anastasija Marcenkaite, Igor Savockin, Raiza Riazanova
Sure to be an audience favourite at this year’s Bright Nights: The Baltic-Nordic Film Festival is the ambitious and poignant Lithuanian drama The Excursionist. This intimately epic historical drama examines the aftermath of World War II through the eyes of one courageous young girl, and The Excursionist is just as moving as it is revealing. (I honestly knew nothing about this chapter of history before seeing the film.) The remarkable and inspiring true story of the journey of young Maria (Anastasija Marcenkaite) is bound to touch festival audiences this year.

Maria is just a young child when The Excursionist begins with a tragic scene in which she loses her mother on the cramped, chaotic train that leads a mass of Lithuanian’s to concentration camps in Siberia. Amidst death, fear, and isolation, Maria escapes the train (and “The Excursion” as it’s aptly called by the people she encounters on her long journey home). She faces a 6000-mile trek from her escape point on the Trans-Siberian train back to her family farm in Lithuania, but the arduous homecoming brings Maria into the care of some of the remaining decent people in this time of uncertainty.

The first people to help her are a farmhand named Vitiok, played by Igor Savockin, who looks like a distant cousin of Willem Dafoe, and the beleaguered yet nurturing Baba Nadia, played by Raiza Riazanova, who cares for Maria after Vitiok nearly kills her after running over the doghouse that she uses as a hiding place. Maria’s resourcefulness keeps her alive and her ability to distinguish the kindness of strangeness from her own naïveté helps her escape death more than once along the way. She even knows to assume the pseudonym 'Masha' to protect her identity and pass as a young Russian girl.

Both these strangers risk their lives for Maria, especially Vitiok who scurries her away to another train and teachers that new moral codes apply in her quest for survival. Maria's trip home brings her into contact with both the best and the worst characters of humankind in the aftermath of the Holocaust and the rise of Stalinist Russia. For every sympathetic person willing to assist Maria long the way, she encounters one or two brutally cruel strangers who abuse and violate both her body and her spirit as if the recent trauma of the war entitles them to punish those whom they see as weak. The fallout of the war leaves the people of the Baltics in the larger mess of poverty and hardship that plagues Europe, and The Excursionist matter-of-factly dramatizes the ways in which the period after the war created a time of moral and legal grey areas with Maria finding herself in between the forces of people struggling to rebuild and forgive versus those who use the tragedies of the war to justify further heartbreak.

Director Audrius Juzenas handles the violence of wartime very well, keeping it both realistic and brutal, but The Excursionist never pushes the graphic nature of the violence too far for a story seen through the eyes of the child. It introduces the violence of war gradually, bringing it into Maria’s life first with the emotional toll of losing her mother and builds the horror of the violence so that even an eleven-year-old can discern the senselessness and callousness of the violence. The film evokes comparison to Cate Shortland’s brave and beautiful Lore with its own elegiac dramatization of a child’s struggle to make sense of the world around her in the aftermath of war, although Maria offers the other side of the perspective: whereas Lore knows only the war from the viewpoint of a German child shielded from the dark reality of the Holocaust by her Nazi parents, Maria emerges from the worst depths of the tragedy and discovers the light that still flickers.

Maria, however, very much remains an innocent for all the horror she sees. Played with resilience and remarkable compassion by Marcenkaite, Maria is wise beyond her years simply for her cunning intuition and her beautiful ability to see beyond the awfulness of the people and circumstances she encounters. Maria, guided by faith and the memory of her mother (whose presence is frequently implied and felt), sees only the hope and kindness of her helping hands. The Excursionist celebrates the hope and spirit that endures throughout history even in its darkest and cruelest chapters as Maria survives against the odds and makes an extraordinary trip back home. The radiant cinematography by Ramunas Greicius has distinctly spiritual overtones as Maria’s faith guides her home, but the warm use of sunlight evokes the human kindness that helps her along the way. The Excursionist is genuinely moving with its tale of an enduring spirit.

Rating: ★★★½ (out of ★★★★★)

The Excursionist screens at the Bright Nights: Baltic Nordic Film Festival on Sunday, Feb. 8 at 4:00 pm in the River Building Theatre at Carleton University.

Please visit www.cfi-icf.ca for more information on films, tickets (including online orders!), passes, and memberships.

Bright Nights runs Feb. 6-14. The full festival line-up may be found here.