Let’s talk Oscars. Last Friday we launched a virtual series showcasing a new international feature every week that’s been officially selected to represent its home nation at the 2021 Academy Awards for Best International Feature Film. First up is BLIZZARD OF SOULS, the highest grossing Latvian film in decades and the first narrative feature from documentary director Dzintars Dreibergs. Based on the novel by Aleksandrs Grīns describing his experience as a rifleman in World War I, and later in the Latvian War of Independence, it’s a film that tells the expected “war is hell” narrative but expands beyond that to explore a story of growth, both in its protagonist and in the greater Latvian people.

The film quite literally opens with a bang as we’re thrown into a war zone to meet our frightened protagonist Artūrs Vanags. It’s by far the most harrowing moment of the film, but nonetheless proves itself worthy of Oscar discussion. Cinematographer Valdis Celmiņš uses extended tracking shots—a move seemingly on the Oscar checklist—as danger swirls around Artūrs, giving us enough scenery to understand the logic of the scene, but withholding enough action to create a chaotic fog of war. This method of framing is economical, but more importantly it keeps us up close with the principle cast for the length of the feature. It also works brilliantly as a means of narrative psychology, always keeping the characters in danger of what might lurk within the desolate smog of gas and snow.

We find ourselves in constant fear for these characters, as we follow their journeys to take control of their own destiny in the chaos of battle. This is where the story really differs from other films of this ilk, because rather than becoming a cynical, living casualty of war, Artūrs grows independently as a leader who carves his own path, rather than falling with his comrades.

We become acquainted with Artūrs as a young man heading into the army and out of options. His mother and their family dog are killed by invading Germans early in the story, and his father is a veteran of the service who joins with him. In his first battle, he behaves how you’d expect: afraid to pull the trigger as his friends kill, and die, all around him. But these experiences never completely steal his innocence, or who he truly is, but rather build courage in him to make choices that will aid him later. Though these choices will lead into a fight against many of his former allies, his journey becomes symbolic for Latvia’s own growth and its fight for freedom against the greater Russian Army.

Given the weight of these themes, the film provides enough material to fill a historical epic, but it’s rather condensed to a comfortable 104 minutes. This does leave some plot points introduced and unexplored, such as a love interest that Artūrs meets along the way, but these are typical narrative beats that have been driven home in other war dramas, and are not necessarily missed in this case.

BLIZZARD OF SOULS is the type of film that has been severely missed over the past year. It’s a film that takes a lot of chances and stretches its budget to attract a wide audience and accolades, and most of all has a lot of confidence in itself. It’s a terrific start to an exciting series of Oscar contenders coming in the next few weeks, so be sure to check out MY LITTLE SISTER from Switzerland this Friday, followed by YOU WILL DIE AT TWENTY from the Sudan, and then TRUE MOTHERS from Japan, all of which you can view in our Virtual Movie Palace with a $30 series pass or $10 individually.

And don’t forget, we have even more films being added to our virtual lineup this week, including ACASA, MY HOME, a favorite from the 2020 Sundance Film Festival which was meant to be included in this year’s Cinetopia Film Festival line-up, as well as SOME KIND OF HEAVEN and RAMS.

As always, enjoy and share your thoughts with us on the Michigan & State Theatre Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

See you next week!

Nick Alderink