November, an Estonian period-fantasy by Rainer Sarnet, opens with a robot stealing a cow from its barn slumber. It’s certainly one of the more startling introductory scenes you’re likely to experience from any film this year, but right away we know that this isn’t going to be predictable. From the get go, we’re transported into a world that’s enchanting, offbeat, and bleak; a place that offers much wondernment for the viewer, yet nothing at all for its inhabitants. It’s a story where souls are bought and sold, as we witness a community rot away in its own twisted conscience.
Based on Andrus Kivirähk’s best-selling — and “unadaptable” — novel Rehepapp ehk November (Old Barny aka November), our story takes place in an isolated 19th century village amid a plague. However, this isn’t your ordinary village; this a world where creatures and spirits roam. Wolves, ghosts, witches, the devil himself, and even animated objects known as “kratts” populate the snowy woods which surround the dilapidated old huts. Magic is as common as the bark on the trees — which the villagers eat because of their poverty-stricken circumstances — and the outlandish is presented as mundane and ordinary. To survive the cold and starvation, the villagers steal from their neighbours and anything else that has something worth taking,
At the heart of the thievery and human indecency is a tale of unrequited love: peasant girl Liina (Rea Lest) has eyes for Hans (Jörgen Liik), but he’s only interested in the baroness of the German manor — therefore, in a bid to win his affections, she turns to black magic. At the same time, she’s probably the only person in the entire village who longs for something pure and intimately human, as her neighbours are very much doomed in their ways.
The story explores native fairy tales, as well as Christian and Pagan mythology. The kratts, for example, are folk tale creatures formed from hay and household appliances. In the lore, to bring a kratt to life to do the bidding of its master, one had to make a blood pact with the devil. Here the kratts are used by locals to rob each other. The end results is a strange and potent mythological concoction which examines and satirises the darker side of human nature. This isn’t a tale which portrays humanity in the most positive light and it’s all the better for it.
The most striking aspect of November is the visual style, which is presented entirely in black-and-white, shifting between gloomy and haunting shadows and bright and luminous canvases. The fairy tale qualities are vivid, but perhaps more impressive is how the story feels somewhat grounded despite its visual and narrative peculiarities. The imagery was inspired by the work of Johannes Pääsuke’s, an Estonian photographer renowned for capturing everyday farm life at its most common and downtrodden. As such, what we have here is a film that feels almost like a documentary of rural life, albeit set in a world that’s dreamlike and surreal. If there’s one thing that November accomplishes, it’s the ability to create a world that’s so immersive that, from the beginning, you’re engrossed in it. Movies rarely make the downright bizarre and otherworldly feel this normal.
November is a film that will demand multiple viewings to fully dissect, but, at the same time, it’s an experience that’s hard to shake off and it’s highly likely that you’ll want to revisit it again sooner rather than later. Like the great fantasy stories Alice in Wonderland and The Wizard of Oz, November takes us to a realm unto itself that begs to rediscovered time and time again. Go ahead and take a walk through the woods — there are such sights to be found.