Veit Helmer's "Tuvalu" is a jaunty, captivating fairy tale told essentially in mime and shot through with the sooty humor of its Eastern European locale.
This one-of-a kind charmer casts an immediate and delightful spell, and could never have happened without its enchanting setting, a vast and crumbling Beaux Arts building. Helmer found the building in the heart of Sofia, Bulgaria, although for purposes of the story it's supposed to be in that country's town of Varna, on the Black Sea. Box Office magazine aptly summed it up as "equal parts Emir Kusturica and Charlie Chaplin, with a dash of "Metropolis."
An old steamship conks out in Varna in the midst of a storm, and its captain (Djoko Rossich) and his pretty young daughter Eva (Chulpan Hamatova) take refuge in an old hotel. It and the cathedral-like public bath nearby are the only buildings standing in a wide open space scheduled for redevelopment. When father and daughter go to the baths, they encounter a dilapidated interior with a large pool circled by wide colonnaded balconies giving way to a dome decorated with a bas-relief of Neptune. Grand staircases surround the pool, into which water pours from a cornucopia held by a mermaid statue seated at its edge.
Presiding over all this faded grandeur like a general is Karl (Philippe Clay), the blind, imperious master of the baths--and the building's owner--who is continually giving orders to his devoted, hard-working son Anton (Denis Lavant).
Anton is forever repairing the ancient building and its creaky machinery and leaky roof the best he can. He plays tapes of people frolicking in the pool to maintain the illusion for his father that the baths are as popular as ever, when in reality they attract only an elderly person now and then. The plunge's kindly cashier (Catalina Murgea) has long accepted buttons in place of coins for her handful of impoverished customers.
Two parallel story lines develop and ultimately converge: the lethal machinations of Anton's smarmy brother, Gregor (Terrence Gillespie), to bulldoze the baths for profit as part of the redevelopment project, and the budding romance between Anton and Eva, who discovers in her father's old chest a map locating the island of Tuvalu, presumably the site of buried pirate treasure.
The crux of the matter is Anton's experiencing the conflicting pull of a past that's rapidly deteriorating and the equally strong lure of the future, with Eva representing promises of romance and adventure.
Helmer carries off this lively, offbeat tale with unfailing aplomb. Cinematographer Emil Cristov's mastery of the richness of black-and-white images is equal to that of cameraman Roger Deakins' contribution to "The Man Who Wasn't There."
The pug-nosed, wiry and diminutive Lavant, best known for such Leos Carax films as "Lovers on the Bridge," is a born mime, as wistful as a clown, and he is by far the film's dominant figure.
There's scarcely more dialogue in "Tuvalu" than in Chaplin's "City Lights" and "Modern Times," and like those films, "Tuvalu" has an evocative score and sound effects. Helmer searched throughout his native Germany, then Poland, the Czech Republic, Austria, Hungary and Russia for exactly the right indoor pool before finding it in Bulgaria. His search for the perfect locale--and the perfect cast too--was well worth the effort.
Unrated. Times guidelines: Brief nudity, some sensuality.
Djoko Rossich...The Captain
An Indican Pictures release of a Buena Vista International presentation of a Veit Helmer Filmproduktion-Borough Film production. Producer-director Veit Helmer. Executive producers Vladimir Andreev, George Balkanski. Screenplay Michaela Beck, Helmer. Cinematographer Emil Cristov. Editor Araksi Mouhibian. Costumes Boriana Mintcheva. Production designer Alexander Manasse. Art director Prolet Georgiera. Running time: I hour, 26 minutes.
Exclusively at Nuart, 11272 Santa Monica Blvd. West L.A. (310) 478-6379.