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Review: Estonian fantasy ‘November’ finds light in the darkness

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When they’re not casting spells, making deals with a cackling devil or creating magical servants from inanimate objects, the 19th-century villagers of “November” work and thieve — whatever it takes to eke out a living from the muck.

Writer-director Rainer Sarnet’s earthbound fairy tale occupies a dreamscape somewhere between the teeming canvases of Brueghel and the existential agonies of Bela Tarr’s films. And it’s funny, with a sly salaciousness all its own. Based on a 2000 novel by Andrus Kivirähk that draws on the mythology of Estonia (it was that Baltic country’s submission to the Academy Awards), this folk tale braids together the primordial and the divine in endlessly surprising ways.

The shimmering black-and-white cinematography by Mart Taniel tracks the connections among a village’s wolves and witches, landed gentry and scrabbling farmers. And then there are the kratts — creature-contraptions with bargained-for infusions of human soul, usually constructed from cast-off items like tools and animal skulls. One defiant young man builds his from a snowman, who turns out to be a most poetic being.

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That young man is Hans (Jörgen Liik), one of the unrequited lovers at the center of the story. While Hans schemes to get near a sleepwalking German baroness (Katariina Unt), fellow villager Liina (Rea Lest), the luminously feral heart of the movie, pines for him.

More than the love story, it’s the potent stew of nature and spirit, pagan and Christian, that gives the film its zing.

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‘November’

In Estonian and German with English subtitles

Not rated

Running time: 1 hour, 55 minutes

Playing: Arena Cinelounge Sunset, Hollywood

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