Emilija Iš Laisvės Alėjos (Ulvydas, 2017)

I saw this at a free European Union Film Festival, and when something’s free… well, you have to brace for subpar quality. Fortunately, I was expecting much worse than what I got from Emilija. The Lithuanian film industry is small, underfunded, and brimming with theatrically-trained actors, so yes, the performances lack the nuance you want and expect in a movie setting. The production values are adequate but not extraordinary. The camerawork can be a bit much at times, with a lot of handheld shooting. Visually, this has the air of a made-for-TV affair, and the score plays to the rafters—and then some. In other words: this is nowhere near Hollywood quality, and the blips need getting used to. But, once you settle in and start getting involved in the storyline, the result is rather decent.

Generally this is a patriotic tale of Lithuanian freedom fighters during the ‘70s who work in the theatre and are trying to get their message past the KGB censors. The titular Emilija begins as an idealistic girl from the country, thinking the theatre is a magical world of make-believe; once she begins working there as a repertory actress, she realizes that it’s anything but. Meanwhile, she’s being stalked by a grizzled KGB agent after she is unwittingly caught up in a political demonstration; he sees she owns a black leather book of handwritten partisan poetry, and for some reason he cannot stop thinking about it or her. The book was apparently written by her father, a nationalist who was executed alongside his wife while Emilija was hiding in their barn as a child. It’s the only thing left of them that she owns, so she refuses to give in to the KGB’s abusive tactics. The book’s importance—and the reason for the KGB agent’s obsession over it—are revealed in due course. The revelations are not completely surprising, but they do bring some depth to the antagonist.

My biggest gripe is how superficial Emilija’s characterization is. Despite being the heroine, she’s given shockingly little development, and ends the film as something of a cipher for the patriots’ cause. A symbol of Lithuania’s suffering and tolerance. In fact, the men here are written to be more interesting than the women, who are reduced to fairly one-dimensional roles (one exists only as a traitor; another as the repertory group’s token blonde-haired bitch, etc.). As a progressive filmgoer, I’m always troubled when I’m exposed to screenplays that under- or devalue the role of women, and this is one of those offenders.

Still, as a slice of history that recalls a miserable time in Lithuania’s history, this film doesn’t soften any of the blows. Hell, it even opens with the self-immolation of Romas Kalanta, a young protester whose death kicked off a year of civil unrest. Even if Emilija did not exist as a person, one can still imagine others like her finding themselves on the path of resistance, and that type of verity is what makes Emilija a compelling watch—in spite of its relative unevenness.