November is a 2017 film by the Estonian director Rainer Sarnet, based on a novel by Andrus Kivirähk. The film is notable – and of interest to me – for its portrayal of Estonian folklore. It has been classified (wrongly, in my view) as folk horror, a genre that has developed in the Anglo-American world and has limited relevance to Baltic cinema. There is nothing in the film that an Anglo-American audience would recognise as horror. The best description for the film’s style is, instead, ‘magical realism’, because the viewer is plunged into a world where everything in Estonian folklore is viscerally real and, indeed, just a part of life. Peasants really can assemble their farm implements into a kratt, animated by a pact with the devil; the dead really do return and feast with the living on All Souls’ night; people really can transform themselves into wolves; the devil is a grotesque, clown-like trickster.
Films based on folklore are always faced with a dilemma; to what extent will the film suggest that everything in folklore is real? At the two extremes are folk horror (where folklore is often a motive for extreme and horrific human behaviours rather than corresponding to any preternatural reality) and magical realism, where everything in folklore is real. In the middle hover those films that try to create some doubt in the viewer’s mind about the reality or unreality of preternatural beings. November works so well because it is firmly in the magical realist genre; there is no ambiguity. This world is real. And this, indeed, reflects the feel of Estonian folktales, which rarely present the preternatural in ambiguous terms. If you go into the sauna at the wrong time, you might well be flayed alive by murderous sauna-spirits (although the sauna, interestingly, makes only a passing appearance in November).
In addition to the film’s unabashed magical realism, something else I appreciate about November is the avoidance of a paganism/Christianity dichotomy. Such a dichotomy is a frequent trope of the folk horror tradition, precisely because that genre is grounded in Anglo-American cinema and therefore in a culture where such a distinction has been consciously constructed, with folklore stereotypically interpreted as ‘pagan relics’. In Estonia, by contrast, scholarship on folk religion has tended to approach it as a form of popular Christianity with local characteristics; Estonia was, after all, formally Christianised much earlier than its Baltic neighbours, in the early 13th century. And yet, as becomes clear over the course of the film, this popular religion is really neither Christianity nor paganism, but something else: a third, creole construction composed of elements of folklore and half-understood Christianity, itself like a kratt made of old tools and brought to a kind of life. There is a memorable scene where the entire congregation spits out the hosts they have received at Holy Communion in order to make holy bullets, and by the end of the film the priest’s housekeeper has bewitched him with the help of a local witch, leading the old man about on a lead in order to perform his sacred duties. But, crucially, those duties are still considered necessary. The horror lies not in paganism overtaking Christianity; rather, the colonial Christianity imposed on the Estonians is a weak, feeble thing unequal to the task of holding the people’s hearts and minds, so they turn it to their own wills.
November is set at an unspecified date in the first half of the 19th century – a significant period, since Estonia’s peasants had already been freed from serfdom but remained under the rule of a German Lutheran aristocracy who were given a significant degree of autonomy within the Russian Empire. There are hints in the film of a coming Estonian national revival, but for now the peasants remain in a degraded state; cowed by yet also rebellious against the decadent aristocracy, who are taken for fools by their own servants and tenants.
Clearly, there are certain themes of the film that hark back to a shamanistic Finnic past, such as Liina’s real or imagined transformation into a wolf in some sort of trance state; but these are not overplayed as ‘pagan survivals’, perhaps because the film is told from the perspective of peasants who are unaware of the origins of any of their customs – they are just things they do, just things that happen. The film avoids self-consciousness to an impressive degree; most importantly, it offers a plausible experience of the world-view of a 19th-century Estonian peasant – indeed, perhaps one that is more plausible than anything a purely realist film could offer.