Timely as a period piece can possibly be, January (2022) captures the destructive influence of communism on the creative mind of an aspiring filmmaker in Latvia. With the help of Polish DP Wojciech Staroń’s stylish cinematography, director Viesturs Kairiss composes a dream-like ode to the art of filmmaking set against a nation-defining moment in its history.
The fate of the so-called Baltic states – Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia – was defined by the ruthless occupant from the East for decades. The grip of the USSR has asphyxiated the tiny nations, which had significantly less military power to protect themselves than Central Europe’s Poland or even Czechoslovakia. However, just like any other country that’s been invaded and forced to comply with the Soviet brainwashing, the Baltic States had their share of pro-independence movements.
What is January (2022) about?
January (2022) scrutinizes the tumultuous period when the craving for independence grew in the Latvian society that saw through the diminishing power of the USSR. Kairiss looks at the situation from the point of view of Jazis (Karlis Arnolds Avots), a young man who secretly dreams of becoming a filmmaker – maybe even the Latvian Bergman as he doubtfully tells his mother when she encourages him to pursue the plan.
Dreams might need to be put on indefinite hold because Jazis is called by the USSR army to serve. The looming threat of becoming a pawn in the enemy’s squadrons weighs heavily. Even more so, because Jazis meets Anna (Alise Danovska), a zealous artsy soulmate who becomes his muse. Director Viesturs Kairiss weaves the turbulent emotions of the youth into the bigger picture, thus creating both a very personal depiction of one’s path to maturity and a broad look at the society on the brink of war.
Viesturs Kairiss owes a lot to the duo of leading characters.
As a bit absent-minded character – although paradoxically grounded in his perception of reality too – Karlis Arnolds Avots draws us into Jazis’ story almost effortlessly. The Latvian actor gives himself wholly to the role, creating a character that jostles with his internalized feelings and the external powers oppressing him. Many fragile individuals like Jazis were tormented, with their talents left to squander, and Avots understands the gravitas of this role. Kairiss also ends the film by honoring those who dedicated their lives to documenting these harsh times. That calls for a reference to Chernobyl (2019), the HBO series that also devised a character representing all the scientists who worked to prevent the reactor explosion from spreading further.
Opposite Karlis Arnolds Avots stars Alise Danovska, a fascinating volcano of energy that captures the frenetic joyfulness of young creative minds. She lives to the fullest, filming Latvian punk rock bands on a snow-covered stage or meeting Jazis’ mother with only a fur covering her naked breasts. Danovska’s a joy to watch too, and the final scene of January (2022) is a masterpiece constructed by both actors.
At times, the film flows at an unhurried pace, but Kairiss knows when to push the gas pedal and imbue January (2022) with a series of short-cut edits and tracks that bring a similar art-and-punk inspired Leto (2018) to mind.
January (2022) looks magnificent too.
Since the film takes the viewpoint of Jazis’ cinematic exercises, DP Wojciech Staroń’s work had to capture a varied range of visual accents that altogether were the same language. Wojciech Staroń mimics documentary sequences with vintage cameras’ grainy, washed-off effects. When Staroń peeks into the mind of Jazis, the camera records how the protagonist experiments with still frames inspired by Andrew Tarkovsky or his attempts to seize the fleeting moments spent with Anna.
The gravity of the revolution-in-forming builds essential contrast for these careful steps in their joint exploration of love, lust, and art. Kairiss breaks the dreamy sequences by throwing the protagonist into the heart of the Lithuanian uprising, seeing him risk it all in order to document the ongoing barbarity of the Soviet army, but – most importantly – fight for the woman he loves, despite the threat of the revolution.
Since the film’s production did not commence after the war in Ukraine, January (2022) has accidentally seized the opportunity and grew to stand as an anti-war manifest that criticizes the brainwashed propaganda of the USSR and modern Russia. Seeing how the methods, the political discourse, and aggression take the exact same form thirty years later is just harrowing. January (2022) wouldn’t be any less impactful and worthwhile if it premiered against any other geopolitical landscape, but this particular one elevates the Latvian drama to an essential watch.
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