History currently repeating itself lends a particular frisson to Latvian theater, opera, and film director Viesturs Kairiss’ “January.” It takes place in early 1991 when the nation’s push for independence (alongside other Baltic states) met with armed Soviet resistance even as the USSR was falling apart. Those historical events are interwoven with vaguely autobiographical fiction revolving around a mildly nonconformist Riga film school student, one admittedly drawn much as the director was himself in that time and place.
With Moscow leadership again hawkish toward retaining and/or regaining territories of a former empire, this flashback has particular resonance, amplified by the use of archival news and activist-shot footage. Less compelling, if still diverting, are the more conventionally indulgent, nouvelle vague-influenced scenes that comprise a Portrait of the Artist as a Sulky Young Man. The history lesson seems fresher than this protagonist’s stale angst — he is, frankly, a bit of a pill, and having him as our POV limits “January’s” impact. Nonetheless, this Tribeca-boosted drama’s topicality and the midcareer director’s track record should attract programmer interest on the festival circuit and beyond.
The opening text informs it’s Jan. 2, 1991. Russian special police units known as OMON have taken over the state Press House to halt publications supporting the Latvian independence that was declared (and disregarded by the Kremlin) some months earlier. Though he demonstrates no personal political beliefs himself, 19-year-old Jazis (Karlis Arnolds Avots) is willing to risk a beating or arrest to videotape that occupation, along with friend Zeps (Sandis Runge).
The two are enrolled at the local arts academy, both intent on a film career — we can tell because they’re always dropping names like Bergman, Herzog, Tarkovsky, Chytilova, and Kubrick. In an improv acting class, tall, curly-haired Jazis meets fellow student Anna (Alise Dzene), a rich girl whose rebelliousness runs more toward acts of shock-the-bourgeoise provocation. She immediately impresses him by owning the soundtrack to Jarmusch’s “Stranger Than Paradise.” Soon they’re having bad sex and romping about in montages shot in different film stocks.
Already at odds for no particular reason with his good-humored, supportive parents (Baiba Broka, Aleksas Kazanavicius), Jazis churlishly blows a very good thing with Anna when she attracts an intern/assistant gig he would have liked for himself. (She’s taken on by Juhan Ulfsak as real-life documentarian Juris Podnieks, who shot key footage of the independence struggle before dying in a scuba-diving mishap just the next year.) He considers joining the Russian Army, despite everyone — not least his own mother — wondering why he’d aid the enemy rather than man his own people’s barricades.
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Eventually, Jurik does help fight those at the barricades — or at least to film others fighting — which escalates the mingling of archival footage amid the action. Our antihero apologizes to Anna, claiming his actions were due to “pretending to be someone I’m not,” on the other hand complains to his mother, “I’m never gonna find out who I am.” Nevertheless, his internal struggles, whatever they are, remain unexposed here; he just seems petulant, without any real political or artistic convictions we can discern as an excuse.
It’s not lead actor Avots’ fault that this central character remains so psychologically undefined, or that the film doesn’t even draw narrative meaning from his lack of definition — which is, presumably, meant to be just a phase the directorial alter ego is going through. Kairiss is handsome, occasionally playful and charming, though invariably moody five seconds later. But the problem with his being our primary viewpoint is that he doesn’t seem to have one of his own. Even at the barricades, he mostly just gets in the way of people who are passionately committed to being there. Nor is there much rooting value for the romance with Anna, even though the film chooses to close on its possible rekindling.
As roman à clef, “January” isn’t all that interesting — but then, movies about filmmakers glamorizing their collegiate salad days seldom are. The movie even looks as if shrouded in a mist of memory, DP Wojciech Staron’s Academy-ratio images gauzily soft. More involved are the backgrounding events and subsidiary figures, from the deft incorporation of period footage (and music) to the bemused, loving tolerance Kairiss’ parents practice toward him, as well as each other. (Mom’s staunchly anti-Soviet, Dad’s a Party member; neither minds too much.)
Co-written with Andris Feldmanis and Livia Ulman, Kairiss’ script sometimes feels like a loose string of episodes that achieved more flow than story structure in the editing room. Still, the whole does move along, it feels evocative if never quite so substantial as one might ideally like a tale of national liberation to be. The disparate elements (which also encompass vintage Latvian-cinema clips, including from Podnieks’ work) manage to hang together more than not, one binding factor being Juste Janulyte’s frequently interesting original score.