Film, Film Review

BBFF Dispatch #2: Melchior the Apothecary: The Executioner’s Daughter (2022) dir. Elmo Nüganen / The Invisible Fight (2023) dir. Rainer Sarnet

Part of the Boston Baltic Film Festival 2024


The Boston Baltic Film Festival runs in-person from 3/1 through 3/3 at the Emerson Paramount Center and will continue virtually through 3/18. Click here for the schedule and ticket info, and watch the site for Joshua Polanski’s continuing coverage!

“Prove the righteousness of your path.”

As three films produced simultaneously, the Melchior the Apothecary trilogy from Estonia avoids the boring formulaic necrophilia that would be tempting had they been produced after the box office success of the first film. It’s what happens in most famous character-titled mystery series: the boon of one film becomes the bane of another, dooming the series along with the creator’s artistic integrity. Following Melchior the Apothecary and Melchior the Apothecary: The Ghost, both of which played at last year’s Boston Baltic Film Festival and are available digitally this year, the third film, sub-titled in translation as The Executioner’s Daughter, takes what easily could have been fanfare and instead delivers a dram of self-iconoclasm. 

Director Elmo Nüganen, as well as novelist Indrek Hargla’s source material, rejects a commercializing trope-ification of Melchior’s crime-solving gift. The stunning red robe Melchior (Märten Metsaviir) dons for the majority of the trilogy is sidelined for more unrecognizable garbs in The Executioner’s Daughter as he snakes around town avoiding the inquisition and evading capture. Beloved characters die and a thrust of revenge eventually overshadows the genre-catalyzing mystery. It’s also a much more patient film than its two predecessors (or, at least, my memory of them as speedy period piece who-dunnits). By subverting expectations, the Melchior trilogy attends to its allure.

In the third one, Melchior’s wife Keterlyn (Maarja Johanna Mägi) witnesses a vicious attack on a young man (Karl Robert Saaremäe) whose concussion causes memory loss. She doesn’t get a clear view of the attacker but recalls a few important details. Shortly after, a splattering of murders — made to look like self-inflicted hangings — vex medieval Tallinn. Meanwhile, the inquisition, with Markus Luik playing the scrupulous Kardinal Nider, disrupts the power hierarchy of town and creates a new unease.

Mägi remains excellent as the adorable and animated Keterlyn. She’s able to communicate desire for her love interest, not just the sort of platonic chemistry that crowd-pleasing cinematic couples often are limited to. In one scene, she provokes Melchior for coming home late by telling him she “didn’t skip tonight. I went for the both of us.” In another playful flirt, she repeatedly kisses the air pushing against his face without connecting their lips. She also often assumes or takes the position on top when they get frisky, a bedtrait consistent with her character’s own stubborn vivacity. Without desire, their connection would be less. And with a weaker connection, Melchior would be a weaker film. 

Tallinn’s Old Town might be the best-preserved medieval city center in Europe, which likely helped the filmmakers save some money on the construction of their medieval city. This shouldn’t take any credit away though; the high-quality production design is easily one of the series’ number one attractions. They construct a medieval Tallinn that excites from the very first scene of Fair Day with the quirky performance featuring the devil from a carnival troupe. The variety in locations — with Melchior’s pharmacy providing an almost Easter-egg type satisfaction after seeing it through three films — elevates the depth of the immersion and avoids the tedium of location limitation that is often the nadir of lower-budget fantasies. 

His Eminence is the newest source of intrigue. At first, he operates with an almost naive religiosity that appears to blind him to the moral landscape of the city. In his first major confrontation with Melchior, he asks a series of questions not unlike a strict confessor probing a timid new confessee. The protagonist is unsurprisingly honest, though this doesn’t seem to garner the favor of the Kardinal as it should have. He then secures a testimony against Melchior and his dubious practices. But Nider is more complicated than his first impression, which, in retrospect, was calculatingly punctilious. After one of the later murders strikes particularly close to Melchior, he challenges the apothecary with an ultimatum. “Prove the righteousness of your path,” and then you will be judged. Unlike the last two films, Melchior’s path here becomes legitimately morally troubled — and his ecclesiastical confrontations reveal his own awareness of these complications. In all, it’s an intriguing conclusion to a well-made trilogy.

There’s an aspirational sports cliche, occasionally and dubiously attributed to the French-Canadian hockey legend Guy Lafleur, that admonishes athletes to “play every game as if it’s your last one.” Of course, one can play a 60-second shift with all the verve and violence within oneself and still make a few boneheaded decisions that rue the shift. In filmmaking, like in hockey, the right energy doesn’t always yield desirous results; it will always be watchable though. 

The personality of such films doesn’t de-facto translate to good art; they do, regardless, tend to share that special love for the cinema. Stephen Chow’s films are like this. Despite being his sixth feature film as director, Kung Fu Hustle has the energy of a last go-around—that “what if this is my only film.” And I don’t know much about Rainer Sarnet, the Estonian director, but I do know that his latest film swims in this sort of energy. It’s also a microcosm of a very specific taste (or collection of them). A slapstick Estonian wuxia-satire encapsulated in a sincere Christian story of transformation set in 1970s USSR and filtered by heavy metal aesthetics, The Invisible Fight is, um, unique.

It’s difficult to describe what exactly this film is about for the same reason it’s hard to pin the tail on the piñata donkey while blindfolded: there’s a lack of vision to make sense of the whole thing. Sarnet satirizes so many things that I lost track of what was being poked fun of when; at other times, I struggled to even identify what was the original subject of the joke, a critical fault line one never wants to cross in satire. This is probably due to my own limited cultural familiarity as a North American outsider — and I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s much funnier to most Estonians — but there is no other honest way to respond to the film than being consistent with my own response. And personally, I found the comedy — a kung-fu absurdism colliding with a Cartoon Network-ified version of the VeggieTales — largely random and skit-ish… with Black Sabbath’s “The Wizard” rockin’ in the background. I found the whole thing amusing and confusing. 

The Invisible Fight is strongest when the kung fu gets kicking. The camera is steady enough to actually “show” the slick action. Speaking of action, the fight mixes it up with camera tricks and actually kinetic bodies swinging at each other and never loses its watchability as a result. The fetishistic obsession with metal grated my ears after a bit — mostly because I don’t like metal — but I could be pushed to concede it complements the peculiarity of Sarnet’s funky little film. 

For what it’s worth, you won’t watch another film like this in 2024.

The Invisible Fight
dir. Rainer Sarnet
115 min.

Melchior the Apothecary: The Executioner’s Daughter
dir. Elmo Nüganen
105 min.

Both films screen in person and are available virtually. Melchior shows on Saturday, March 2 at 12:55 pm and will be followed by a Q&A with one of the filmmakers. The Invisible Fight shows on Friday, March 1 at 7:00 pm.

Joshua Polanski is a freelance film and culture writer who writes regularly for the Boston Hassle and In Review Online, and has contributed to the Bay Area Reporter, and Off Screen amongst other places. His interests include the technical elements of filmmaking & exhibition, slow & digital cinemas, cinematic sexuality, as well as Eastern and Northern European, East Asian, & Middle Eastern film.

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