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Friday, December 16, 2011

Now playing: The White Reindeer

Posted By on 12.16.11 at 11:00 AM

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This Sunday, Northwest Chicago Film Society will present an archival print of the 1952 Finnish feature The White Reindeer. I’d never heard of it before, though it was the first Finnish movie to receive US distribution (in 1957) and, according to NCFS programmer Becca Hall, it was made cheaply available for decades to US classrooms. This is just another reminder that film history runs in cycles: some movies are well-known for years only to be forgotten in the long run, while others remain long unknown until a restoration inspires belated discovery.

The White Reindeer, though once widely celebrated (it won a special jury prize at the 1953 Cannes Film Festival), now seems ripe for reappraisal. It’s set among the indigenous people of northern Lapland, and the storytelling is direct and elemental, often suggesting a folktale. The heroine is a young woman who marries an older shepherd she adores—when he leaves her to embark on long herds, she panics at being alone. A shaman agrees to help her in her distress, but his ritual invocation leaves her cursed, transformed werewolf-like into a white reindeer that preys on humans.

Director Erik Blomberg makes the most of the Lapland locations: the wooded plains, seen under feet of snow, are forbidding—the horizon always seems distant. Against this backdrop, the movie’s conflicts (both private and interpersonal) feel especially primal. One could interpret the story allegorically, though Blomberg’s style doesn’t encourage it. Like Kaneto Shindo’s recently-revived The Naked Island (1960), Reindeer stays close to its characters’ perspective, rarely hinting at anything about the world that they don’t know. And as in Shindo’s film, a viewer might spend a while wondering just when it takes place—there are almost no modern details to serve as clues.

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What we do see, however, is pretty stunning: untouched tundra, reindeer in the hundreds, animal sacrifice, and bloody murder. It’s a surprise this didn’t remain popular among American schoolchildren.

The White Reindeer plays at Cinema Borealis, 1550 North Milwaukee Avenue, at 6:00 and 8:15.

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