We must confess to being rather behind the curve when it comes to recent Estonian filmmaking, but if we’d hazarded a guess what it might look like prior to watching Toomas Hussar‘s “Mushrooming,” going on a purely geographical basis we’d have aimed for somewhere halfway between a Finnish film and a Polish film. And Estonia’s official entry for the Foreign Language Film Oscar, which takes the absurdist, deadpan humor of an Aki Kaurismaki, and gives it a certain Eastern European social realist spin, would not have disappointed. A darkhearted black comedy with satirical elements, it features a strong cast who negotiate the genre’s notoriously tricky tonal balance well, even managing to sell some of the script’s more outlandish contortions. And while all three principals are excellent, perhaps Elina Reinhold has the trickiest arc to achieve, but she accomplishes it so well, with such a light touch, that it brought her a well-deserved Best Actress award at the Marrakech Film Festival.
Small-fry politican Aadu (Raivo E. Tamm) and his wife Villi (Reinhold) are off on their annual mushrooming trip to the woods outside Talinn, on the very morning that a dogged local journalist has picked up the scent of some irregularities on Aadu’s expense claims. They stop to get gas and bump into Estonian rock star Zak (Juhan Ulfsak) whom they vaguely know because he once played a party event. He has become separated from his friends and accepts the offer of a ride from them, even if it means waiting in the car for a couple of hours while they look for mushrooms. But it all takes a turn for the worse when the couple gets lost out of earshot of the car, their phone batteries drain and a weirdo starts harassing the car-bound Zak. Eventually he too, takes to the woods and finds the other two so that all three can now be lost together.
What follows is part horror, part comedy, part satire on the shallow uselessness of modern manners, and one of the great pleasures in the film is observing the characters’ well-drawn devolutions. They start out almost as ciphers — self-important gently corrupt politician, washed-up rock star, loyal wifey — but as the trappings of civilization are stripped from them (due to nothing more malicious really than their own ineptitude and hubris), we get to the heart of the funny frightened animals they are, that perhaps we all are, underneath. In an unfamiliar, wild environment into which they all read terrors that probably don’t exist, our threesome find themselves faced with the spectre of urges and evils far more primal than they are equipped to deal with. Under these strains, the interplay between the three of them shifts and twitches like a living thing — fragile moments of alliance and even flirtation giving way to pettiness and then, shockingly, to a ‘Lord of the Flies‘-style violence, made all the more excessive because soon after, they are found and get to return to the “normal world” that has been looking for them.
The film is well shot, and tightly directed and edited so that despite the limited cast and locations, it really feels much bigger than it is. Again, credit has to go to the actors for that too, was they expand the universes of their characters well and bring a groundedness to the more fanciful elements, while still each managing to be, in their way, bleakly funny.The ending, however, overshoots the mark a little – until then there has been fairly rigorous control exerted over tone and narrative logic, and that good work is somewhat undercut by a conclusion which, while funny, strays into broader territory. But it doesn’t mar the experience too much and overall the film is an entertainingly mean-spirited, forensic deconstruction of the hypocrisies of the modern, urban psyche, even if some of the more pointed satire (like around “the media”) lacks real teeth. And while it is Estonian in setting, the themes and personalities it targets are universally recognizable, and universally deserving of the lampooning they receive here. As with certain hallucinogens, it’s that little bit of poison at its heart that makes “Mushrooming” an off-kilter but highly enjoyable trip. [B]