Antti J. Jokinen’s “Purge,” Finland’s official Oscar entry, is based on the widely translated novel and play of the same title by Estonian-Finnish author Sofi Oksanen. The film alternates between two different yet interconnected stories set in rural Estonia: a young prostitute on the run from the Russian mafia in the early 1990s, and a village woman battling personal and socio-political demons during the mid-century Soviet occupation.
We first see prostitute Zara (Amanda Pilke) running through the damp night and collapsing in front of the backwoods cabin owned by Aliide (Liisi Tandefelt), a reclusive old woman with a tough-as-nails face and a strong distrust for her scantily dressed surprise visitor. Through a series of flashbacks we learn that Zara was abducted by ultra-violent Russian sex traffickers, and subsequently escaped her domineering pimp. Yet coming to Aliide’s residence isn’t entirely promising for the wretched girl, as she’s immediately locked in the guest room while Aliide, jutting out her hair-speckled chin and fingering the pistol she keeps around the house, decides what to do.
From this point, the film toggles back and forth between the present situation and what we soon learn is Aliide’s horrific past. Young Aliide (played by a good Laura Birn), angular and wary-faced under her severe bob of blonde hair, lives with her sister Ingel in 1940s Estonia. Stalin’s soldiers and doctrines have overtaken their town, and those rebelling against the Soviet takeover are mercilessly rounded up and shot in the streets. Aliide’s sympathies are ambiguous. She helps harbor Ingel’s rebel husband, Hans, under the floorboards of their house, while also harboring an intense crush him. But after being subjected to harrowing torture by local officials who suspect she knows Hans’ whereabouts, Aliide cracks. Trauma teaches her that siding with the powers-that-be keeps her safe, even if it means jeopardizing the safety of her sister’s family. She falls into the arms of Soviet henchman Martin, who preaches the word of Stalin as if it was the word of God.
“Purge” is a binge of suffering from start to finish. Rape, wartime violence, death, torture of women and children — it’s all there in abundant amounts, pressed up in our faces with a frantic handheld camera. The drama is so hyperbolic and without reprieve that it has a numbing effect. The score’s heavy strings, which lace the film, are like smacks on the head, telling us when to feel upset. I find that humorless drama is a tonal flattener. In the midst of immense suffering, there should be the occasional thing, even if darkly tainted, to make us laugh. But as my dad half-jokingly says, “The Finnish only get about six hours of sunlight per day.”
Despite the whack-a-mole self-seriousness, “Purge” left me intrigued. Aliide’s character defies the typical arc. Instead of overcoming the obstacles ahead of her, she recoils at them, joins them, and buries all the unwieldy parts of her conscience deep inside herself. Meanwhile, the pint-sized Zara, who enters the film a broken person, has a shade more brutality in her than meets the eye. It’s a portrait of coping and the ambiguities of self-protection.
It’s also a portrait that is strongly influenced and no doubt aided in its international popularity by the “Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” series. Stieg Larrson’s gritty mystery trilogy fixates on female victimization, Nordic counterculture, Europe’s ugly 20th-century past and the old guards who have been hardened by that past. It has a flair for the exploitative, which I was pleased to see “Purge” indulge in during its final minutes. It’s not giving too much away to say that Aliide turns into one steely granny in her old age, unwilling to cower to any pimps who come gunning for her door. After all, she’s lived through Communism and fascism — the present is a piece of cake.