“It was meant to be a film about God’s benevolence,” director Lukas Moodysson (Together) says, “but reality reared its head and it became something else.”
As a Swedish filmmaker, perhaps Moodysson should have expected as much. In Ingmar Bergman’s films, God’s grace at its benevolent best only acts through human flesh and, at its tragic worst, is just a grim and moribund fairy tale. In Lilya 4-Ever, Moodysson makes his way down his own rocky path toward a similar realization.
Of course, God’s grace has been a theme of Scandinavian film before even Bergman. The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928), the agonizing Danish silent tragedy by Carl Dreyer, is a classic example. That film inspired Dreyer’s latter-day countryman Lars von Trier’s Breaking the Waves. In it, von Trier sketches out a classic melodrama: A “simple” girl sacrifices herself for her gravely injured husband. But illicit, humiliating and ultimately fatal sexual encounters are her ironic sacrifice to God — and inflame the story’s transcendence beyond melodrama into full-blown tragedy.
Lilya (Oksana Akinshina), a bittersweet 16-year-old, isn’t allowed much free will to sacrifice herself: She is sacrificed by her mother who is escaping the ruins of Estonia while abandoning Lilya to her own increasingly desperate devices. When the little money her mother has given her is spent, she seeks out her Aunt Anna (Lilia Shinkareva) to grudgingly ask for help.
“Go into town and spread your legs like your mother,” is all Anna manages. Lilya paints her face, takes a train ride into the city and sits at the bar of a meat-market disco awaiting her fate.
Like von Trier, Moodysson’s documentarian film language usually tells mundane and tragic melodramas with an effective understatement and a redemptive denouement. But here, he occasionally tries more expressionistic techniques that are questionable.
The pleas in her recitations of the Lord’s Prayer aside, Lilya isn’t so much a Joan of Arc as an ironic Cinderella-Gretel to Volodya (Artiom Bogucharskij), her 11-year-old friend’s fairy godbrother-Hansel. But by the end, Lilya 4-Ever turns into the tragedy of a teenage girl’s white slavery beyond the powers of fairy-tale redemption.
Showing exclusively at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit), Friday through Sunday. Call 313-833-3237.
James Keith La Croix writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected].