Tallinn's black nights

Unexpected surprises and delights abound at Estonia's best film festival

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Of the film festivals I make it to every year, the Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival in Estonia won my heart early as my favourite. It could just be that I'm a diehard winter person, and you can't get more seasonal than an event named for the fact it's cloaked in Nordic darkness for all but a few hours of every day. Outside the cinemas - including that wonder of Stalinist architecture, the old arthouse Sõprus - you can shut yourself in a dry wooden sauna to sweat out your last evening's sins. But now in its 17th year, its wolf logo still going strong, the film programme itself is always enlivened with surprises.

Of Horses and Men

While the international competition winner was The Great Beauty, Paolo Sorrentino's brilliant, razor-sharp portrait of an existentially tired man of culture living in a Rome of superficial splendours, the award for the best Nordic and Baltic film went to Iceland's Of Horses and Men from director Benedikt Erlingsson. Milking the Nordic island's sublime, forbidding landscapes, this stunning-looking but totally idiosyncratic film sports lashings of darkly loopy, no-messing-about Icelandic humour. In a horse-riding community extreme mishaps (involving hazards from wire-cutters to a randy stallion and pure alcohol from a Russian trawler) underscore the stoicism-demanding unpredictability of our bond with nature in a series of intertwined situations.

Free Range, Tangerines and Soviet-era advertising

And Estonian cinema right now? The film we're holding out for is director Veiko Õunpuu's latest, Free Range, which guests got a peek of in the Black Nights market and which will have its international festival premiere soon. His previous film The Temptation of St Tony, which took its name from a Hieronymous Bosch painting, saw a middle manager (Taavi Eelmaa) plunged into blackly absurd, grotesquely surreal terrain after being ordered to fire his factory workers. Riven with post-Soviet unease, it asked how a solitary man can go about life amid a net of capitalism-corrupted strictures. With the tellingly titled Free Range, Õunpuu has let go of majestic old-world black-and-white for existential ennui grounded in the everyday. It's about a young newspaper critic and writer (Lauri Lagle) hemmed in by society's petty drudgery whose girlfriend has just found she's pregnant. The trailer's awash in soft colours and the Alessi Brothers' 70s track "Seabird", the languid love-summer idealism it evokes only seeming to taunt as impossible nostalgia within a filmmaker like Õunpuu's world view.

Zaza Urushadze's conventional but intelligently wry Tangerines was, on the other hand, screening in competition – and won the award for Best Estonian film. A co-production with Georgia, it plays out during 1992's Abkhazian war in an abandoned village where two ageing Estonians have stayed to tend their tangerine orchards. One takes injured soldiers from opposing sides into his home and tries to pacify the pair of enemies as they recuperate, while questioning if the conflict is profiting anyone.

Premiering outside the festival, I also caught Hardi Volmer's amusing new documentary The Gold Spinners, which charts the at times mindbendingly weird output of the Soviet Union's sole advertising agency Eesti Reklaamfilm. Based in Estonia, it made TV commercials for services and products in the 70s and 80s – some of which didn't even exist.

Mephisto

In town to pick up a Lifetime Achievement award was legendary Hungarian director Istvan Szabo. Among his films screening was 1981's Mephisto, an elegantly shot take on the Faust legend that sees an actor effectively sell his soul to the Nazi party during the rise of fascism, turning his back on his black lover and left-wing friends and playing the sycophant so he can grasp status and coveted theatre roles. His greatest is in chilling white face-paint as Mephistopheles. With Hungary today in the alarming grip of right-wing rule and cultural clampdown, Szabo's classic is still all too resonant.

Mexican Bronco

As well as showcasing Baltic fare, Black Nights is wide-ranging in the films it brings to its screens. This year, a Mexican Bronco strand examined the prominence of violence as a story-telling tool to reflect on the realities of modern Mexico. It included Narco Cultura, Shaul Schwarz's darkly fascinating doc on the shaping of Mexican pop culture by drug traffickers, and Heli, Amat Escalante's uncompromisingly bleak, masterfully shot and viscerally tough-to-take vision of a young factory worker subsisting in a dead-end hell ruled by drug cartels and police corruption, whose life descends further when a money-making scheme goes drastically awry.

Moebius

Equally graphic, and off-the-charts bizarre to boot, was the film I caught from South Korea - provocateur Kim Ki-duk's grotesque Freudian ballet Moebius. With next-to-no dialogue, its sustained hysterical outpouring plays out like a nightmarescape amid castration and incest after a wife takes out her anguish at her husband's infidelity on her son. Strangely and rhythmically hypnotic, it's also buoyed by a streak of surprisingly playful, absurdist humour.

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