Eugene Weekly : Movies : 12.23.10


So Be Good for Goodness’ Sake
‘Santa’ is awfully close to ‘Satan’
by Molly Templeton

RARE EXPORTS: A CHRISTMAS TALE: Written and directed by Jalmari Helander. Original idea by Juuso Helander. Cinematography, Mika Orasmaa. Music, Juri and Miska Seppä. Editor, Kimmo Taavila. Oscilloscope Laboratories, 2010. R. 84 minutes.  

When’s the last time you saw a Finnish movie? How about a non-irritating Christmas film? You’ll get both in Rare Exports, Jalmari Helander’s scarily funny flick set at the border of Finland and Russia. There’s not a lot there — snow, ice, reindeer, a small number of locals — but there is one particular mountain that’s caught the attention of an American businessman. His mysterious excavation comes with safety regulations that baffle his employees: No swearing? No smoking? What the fuck?

When the excavation hits pay dirt — sawdust, actually — it just so happens that two mischievous Finnish kids have climbed up to see what the hell the Americans are up to. The older, Juuso (Ilmari Järvenpää), is unimpressed. But the younger, Pietari (Onni Tommila), starts to put things together. Pietari’s leaps of logic are both a little unbelievable and perfectly rational for a kid who’s still trying to believe in Santa Claus: What if it’s Santa buried under there? And what if Santa isn’t the nice fuzzy-bearded old guy from the Coke commercials, but something a whole lot nastier?

Pietari carries a lot of Rare Exports on his thin little shoulders, and he’s just the right kind of kid for the job, wide-eyed but not too cute. The grownups aren’t too clueless, but they’re awfully pragmatic. Pietari’s worries about being naughty are nothing to his father, a stout butcher; far more pressing is the matter of the naked old man who falls into their wolf pit, and the question of how the family will survive when something’s killed all the reindeer that were to provide their income.

Helander drags out the question of who the naked old man is just long enough. A lot of his film is a sly tease, offering quick glimpses of bloody footprints in the snow or a creepy and suggestive gleam in the eye of the naked old dude, threatening violence or pain but letting the threat, not anything gory or horrid, amplify the tension. A very particular sense of humor — a long sequence takes place in a butcher’s shed, gingerbread is totally key and the adults are amusingly ridiculous about what the kids should and shouldn’t see — helps Rare Exports overcome its problem with pacing; it’s barely over an hour and feels a little thin. But the quirkily dark tone helps balance things out. The climactic sequence, part gorgeous flight over the landscape and part over-too-fast action sequence, is peopled with Santa’s elves as you’ve likely never seen them before, and the bizarreness is a nifty twist on the sweetness of Pietari’s inevitable triumph. 

Rare Exports combines a little bit of everything: family drama, economic difficulty, international relations, the darker side of the Santa story (what about all the naughty kids?) and a reminder that when your country’s native people are said to have buried something very nasty, it’s probably best not to dig it up. If someone else digs it up anyway, however, be prepared with a reasonable amount of ingenuity and at least one well-behaved little kid.

Rare Exports is now playing at the Bijou.