A grisly real-life massacre haunts this elegant Cold War thriller from debut director Jurgis Matulevicius.

A strikingly accomplished debut feature from the young Lithuanian writer-director Jurgis Matulevicius, Isaac draws on Cold War thriller and film noir tropes to create an ambitiously novelistic Euro-drama in which personal treachery resonates across a broader historical canvas. World premiered at Black Nights film festival in Tallinn two weeks ago, this Lithuania-Poland co-production will have strong appeal for fest programmers, but such a confident and sophisticated work deserves a wider audience beyond the usual niche demographic for subtitled art house fare.

Isaac is based on a short story by Antanas Skema, a cult Lithuanian author with a surreal, stream-of-conscious style. But Matulevicius mostly paints his time-jumping narrative in stark social-realist monochrome, invoking the golden age of European New Wave cinema without resorting to reverential pastiche. Like Pawel Pawlikowski’s Cold War, Vaclav Marhoul’s The Painted Bird and other recent ruminations on Eastern Europe’s enduring post-war wounds, this elevated psychological thriller has a universal resonance and moral complexity that transcends specific period context.

Divided into three acts, Isaac is a visually arresting drama about the lingering psychic trauma of totalitarian savagery and unresolved Holocaust guilt. The glamorous bed-hopping bohemians at its heart could almost have danced out of Fellini’s La Dolce Vita, particularly during a set-piece central party sequence in a grand villa. But the paranoid suspense plot that later engulfs them is pure Kafka, while the semi-derelict urban interiors that dominate the final act inevitably invoke the poetically ruined dreamscapes of Andrei Tarkovsky.

Matulevicius and his cinematographer Narvydas Naujalis shoot Isaac in a fluid, freewheeling style, with extensive use of elegantly choreographed traveling shots. They open with a bravura single-shot sequence which re-creates a notorious real-life World War II massacre at the Lietukis Garage in the Lithuanian city of Kaunas on 27 June, 1941, when an armed mob tortured and murdered between 40 and 60 Jews in front of a baying crowd, a savage taster for the incoming Nazi occupation of the Baltic states. One of the dead, Isaac (Dainius Kazlauskas), is casually killed by a young stranger who becomes caught up in the bloodbath almost by chance, his fate switching from potential victim to villain in the heat of the moment.

The story then jumps forward 23 years to 1964, deep in the Cold War, with Lithuania now under Soviet Russian control. A feted writer and film director, Gediminas (Dainius Gavenonis), returns from American exile to an effusive formal welcome from the communist puppet government, which exploits his homecoming for maximum political propaganda value. Gediminas has ambitious plans to shoot a film about the Lietukis Garage massacre, which Lithuania’s Moscow-backed authorities initially approve. However, one of the director’s old friends, boozy crime scene photographer Andrius (Aleksas Kazanavicius), is privately very wary about the film, his reservations rooted in his own guilty secrets. His doubts are exacerbated by his fragile, imploding relationship with Elena (Severija Janusauskaite), who is clearly attracted to Gediminas.

Meanwhile, ruthlessly driven young KGB officer Kazimieras (Martynas Nedzinskas) starts to obsess about Gediminas and his screenplay, working on a hunch that he must have personally witnessed the Lietukis Garage massacre to have written such an accurate re-creation. His determination to unearth the truth at all costs will eventually expose all the key protagonists to mortal danger, himself included.

Isaac is steeped in blood and betrayal, often erupting in the most unlikely settings. One convivial ensemble scene in a late-night bar turns ugly when Kazimieras orders thuggish KGB heavies to beat up two drinkers for making casual comments about Lenin. As Andrius is consumed by guilt, his feverish brain conjures up increasingly nightmarish images, hallucinating heaps of reproachful corpses like some kind of haunted Shakespearean villain. Matulevicius is sometimes too opaquely ambivalent with his diffuse narrative, leaving some subplots dangling, and tragic endings with only shadowy explanations. But mostly these loose threads reinforce the sense of a richly textured story with literary layers.

Minor plot niggles aside, Isaac is a sumptuous feast for the senses. The sparing use of washed-out color, mostly in in the middle act, hints at a more hopeful future for the characters before history’s crushing monochrome weight returns with a vengeance. One superbly orchestrated sequence takes place in a nightclub where Elena and Gediminas embrace on the dance floor while a doomy rock band plays, their anachronistic New Wave sound rooted far more in the early 1980s than the mid 1960s. This is perhaps one of many subtle hints from Matulevicius that Europe’s brutal totalitarian past is not safely dead and buried but still has troubling aftershocks even today.

Venue: Black Nights Film Festival, Tallinn
Production company: Film Jam
Cast: Aleksas Kazanavicius, Severija Janusauskaite, Dainius Gavenonis, Dainius Kazlauskas, Martynas Nedzinskas
Director: Jurgis Matulevicius
Screenwriters: Jurgis Matulevicius, Saule Bliuvaite, Nerijus Milerius
Producer: Stasys Baltakis
Cinematographer: Narvydas Naujalis
Music: Agne Matuleviciute, Domas Strupinskas
Sales company: Film Jam
104 minutes 

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