Pretentiousness, portentousness, pointlessness, tedium: Lithuanian director Sarunas Bartasís films, which are showing this week at the Harvard Film Archive, (in a program curated by Jurate Kajokaite, guest curator at Anthology Film Archives, New York) embody all the negative clichés commonly held about foreign cinema. Except subtitles: since dialogue is minimal, none is needed. On the other hand, these films also achieve what apparently only foreign cinema is capable of these days: moments of transcendent beauty, startling epiphanies, a glimpse into the truth of the human condition.
I first encountered Bartasís work at the 1991 Berlin Film Festival, where, jetlagged and on my fourth film of the day, I watched his Three Days (1991; March 21 at 9:15 p.m. and March 25 at 7 p.m.). In Berlin, youíre used to films that frustrate narrative and other expectations, but this one made Antonioni look like John Hughes. (Although as his first feature film, it does have some dialogue and subtitles. One line: " Youíre a blockhead. " ) Two young men from a pastoral if squalid village head to the city by train, presumably for good times. The city (Kaliningrad, it turns out) is a surrealist nightmare of blighted housing, empty squares, stunted people, ship-building cranes, wheeling gulls, and Katerina Golubeva, a stunning dark-eyed actress (she recalls Irène Jacob) who appears in almost all of Bartasís films, divinely illuminating his most dismal visions of anomie. Not that these two louts seem to appreciate her: they smoke cigarettes, one gets mugged, one canít find any place where he and she can get laid, and after the title period of time, they take the train home.
Things happen in Bartasís films, but always off screen or between cuts (since his takes are often minutes long and consist of utter if picturesque stasis, youíd think heíd keep shooting till something did happen, but no). The effect on the viewer ranges from total annoyance to dissociation to melancholia to elevated consciousness. As for the characters, if such they can be called, their emotional range consists of apathy, depression, anxiety, and confusion, all of which they express mostly by smoking cigarettes.
None is more sublimely depressed than Golubeva, whoís featured in Few of Us (1996; March 23 at 7 p.m. and March 25 at 9:15 p.m.), one of the most narratively coherent of Bartasís films and one of the least involving. In a kind of inversion of the premise of Three Days, sheís dropped by helicopter into a Siberian village of Asian reindeer herders (if you find yourself asking why, you have not gotten into the Bartas frame of mind). There she settles in with an old guy who smokes a lot, and for a while it seems that her biggest problem will be hideous boredom until two guys come on to her at a party (accordions are a hot item in this village) and a knife is produced and the tale devolves into a primitive chase-and-vengeance scenario, though obliquely related.
So much for narrative. Far more rewarding is Bartasís The House (1997; March 22 at 7 p.m. and March 24 at 9 p.m.), a moody, often astounding reverie reminiscent of Tarkovsky at his most hallucinatory. Finding himself in a decaying mansion set in a winter-glazed woodland, a scruffy young man wanders about in desperate need of a smoke and a drink and a change of attitude. He steps into rooms with unusual tableaux: dozens of naked giggling children: a backlit Great Dane bitch with big teats eating food off a dining-room table: an angry-looking black guy playing chess with himself. But nothing shakes him from his funk, not even waking up in a room full of naked women (where is Katerina Golubeva when you need her?), and so the film ends violently with what looks like a pre-emptive military strike from a mechanized column.
Perhaps Bartasís finest film is one of his first and shortest. The 40-minute " In Memory of a Day Gone By " (1990; screens with Three Days) appears to be a notebook of images made in preparation for Three Days, and it preserves all the pathos, poetry, and narrative coherence that got left out of the final product. Itís a fascinating montage of scenes from an average day in the city, some surreal (an empty street suddenly filled with a parade of workers filing into a factory), some heartbreaking (a battered old man crawling up the sidewalk on his knees toward a church service, hopelessly mouthing prayers). In a recurring trope, a bearded puppeteer and his similarly bearded puppet are ignored by the downtrodden citizens. So he packs it back in his box, its body twitching in the snow as he wraps its strings, a metaphor, perhaps, of Bartasís work to come.