By Eric Kohn | Indiewire November 8, 2010 at 1:48AM
Family history, rendered in documentary form, usually has more appeal for the family than anyone else. "Discoveries of a Marionette" provides an alternative approach. Norwegian director Bjarte Morner Tveit appears to learn things about his grandfather's adventurous backstory at the same time that we do, resulting in a refreshingly unconventional portrait of generational inquiry. Rather than making himself the star of the show, Tveit presents his grandfather's history through the research materials provided for him, and ponders their larger significance. His grandfather, Alf, was a Norwegian resistance fighter in World War II, and sailed around the world before finding a wife and settling down. To this end, Tveit explains in a voiceover, he has always viewed Alf as "a mythical figure" without fully understanding the actual details of his achievements. "Discovers of a Marionette" tracks Tveit's attempt to fill in the gaps.
One day, Alf unexpectedly calls Tveit and invites him over to do an interview about his life. Alf gives his grandson hundreds of hours of home movies shot across the globe, along with diaries spanning decades of his career. Soon afterward, he succumbs to leukemia at the age of 86, leaving Tveit to pick through the footage and piece together his grandfather's experiences. Reading the diaries, talking to his grandfather's friends and -- most significantly -- assembling the footage, Tveit unravels a mystery in 8mm film.
As it turns out, "this giant of a man," whom Tveit accepted without question during his childhood, lived a far more interesting life than Tveit initially thought. Disregarding his family's pressure to become a typesetter, Alf snuck off to the United Kingdom to become a sailer, traveling from New Orleans to Bombay. During the war, he was arrested by the government for attempted sabotage, survived Nazi imprisonment and even organized an elaborate murder of an enemy soldier. Charting Alf's perilous journey, Tveit also provides a fascinating history of his country during the middle half of the twentieth century. Visiting an old prison camp with his uncle, Tveit places his grandfather's struggle within the larger context of international upheaval, and comes to understand how his grandfather reconciled the darker aspects of human behavior with a sincere desire to do good. It was clearly a work in progress. The filmmaker takes a pensive approach to answering his central question and invites viewers to join him: Why, he wonders, did his grandfather suddenly unleash the secrets of his life? Perhaps, as Tveit's detective work suggests, because he needed help solving them.
Rather than dismantle Alf's legend, the new material builds it up. Tveit never talks about his personal life in any regard except in the context of his relationship to Alf. The story becomes less about one man's line of inquiry into his family background than a general sense of curiosity that most people feel for time gone by. He works with archeological specificity, digging up items from his grandfather's past and assuming his state of mind at the time.
Sometimes, Tveit's philosophical approach seems poised for a major revelation, but the big moment never arrives. At 78 minutes, his exploration is sadly inconclusive, and just tantalizing enough to make you wish he dug a little deeper. Fortunately, the marionette metaphor of the title, delivered in the closing scenes, has striking effectiveness. Tveit sees himself as a puppet of his father's dying wishes, a cosmic idea that he applies to all of humanity in its ongoing quest to understand its roots. As Tveit shares his soul-searching with an audience, the puppet becomes the master.
criticWIRE grade: B+