TV REVIEW : 'Requiem' a Poetic Paean to Freedom

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The global political winds seem to be blowing in favor of democracy, but a film such as Juris Podnieks' "A Baltic Requiem" (tonight on Channel 28 and 15, 9 p.m.) indicates that something deeper than a desire for democracy is in the air. Podnieks, from Latvia, is out to film nothing less than the spiritual meaning of independence, nationhood and self-governance for his budding native republic and its Baltic neighbors, Estonia and Lithuania.

An awesome task, perhaps even foolhardy. But despite several lapses into blunt stridency--shots of gentle Latvian folk singers intercut with occupying Soviet tanks and gun ships, for example--"A Baltic Requiem" becomes a poetic incantation, calling up images of political passion and great beauty.

Although long-time Soviet watcher Hedrick Smith introduces the film, this Central Independent Television (of Great Britain) production shouldn't be confused with the fact-filled but styleless documentaries that typify public affairs television. Podnieks puts together a film in the best tradition of Northern European and Slavic cinema, in which memories, dreams and nightmares blend into a haunting montage: It's as if Podnieks were transferring his own mental images directly onto film.

This lends "Requiem" an extraordinary intimacy, even as it looks at what would seem to be the impersonal subject of three nations freeing themselves of the Soviet Union. There are, of course, mini-portraits of various individuals: A former beauty queen who survived the Gulags; a woman who has built a cross, a symbol of strength to Lithuanians before Christianity; an ex-KGB worker who now champions independence.

But they exist on the margins of the film. What swirl in the middle of Podnieks' tribute are the exultant faces of the conductors at the Latvian Song Festival, Latvian lawmakers occupying and sleeping at their desks for days to prevent ouster by the approaching Soviet Army, and teams of people restoring grave sites destroyed by Soviet military.

Though Boris Yeltsin's presidential election in Russia may have sparked irreversible momentum for complete independence for the Baltic states, failure and death hang over the film. When two of Podnieks' gutsy cameramen, Andris Flapins and Gvido Zvaigzne, are fatally shot during a bloody Soviet crackdown in Latvia, their cameras keep running. The effect is of seeing through a dying man's eyes while being astonished at the tenacious will to survive.

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