The Boston Baltic Film Festival ran in-person from Friday, 3/3 through Sunday, 3/5 at the Emerson Paramount Center, and will continue virtually through 3/19. Click here for the schedule and ticket info, and watch the site for Joshua Polanski’s continuing coverage!
Elmo Nüganen, the director of all three Melchior the Apothecary films (all 2022), is likely the most popular currently working filmmaker from Estonia. His 1944 (2016) is essentially the most internationally recognizable film in the country’s history and made a whopping $22,059,662 worldwide on a budget well under 2 million. His box office receipts are remarkable given that Estonia is a country of just 1.3 million people. (For perspective, Greater Boston tops out at a little under 5 million.) Based on the two films of his I’ve seen, the best comparison that might make sense to a Western cinephile audience might be Ron Howard, the genre-loving “wife guy” movie director. And I mean that as a compliment: Howard understands his audience like few others.
Nüganen’s Melchior historical mysteries, both of which are wildly successful locally, demonstrate the appeal. Poised detective yarns, these old-fashioned populist films are designed to maximize the emotional enjoyment of large audiences while also allowing space for virtue veneration and development. The former has been wrecked with no hope of departure on the shores of our contemporary (Anglophone) cinema landscape for some time now, but the latter has lost its place. Melchior the Apothecary might possess an ingredient of the antidote.
In the first of the trilogy (the third will be arriving later this year), the titular apothecary Melchior (Märten Metsaviir) is summoned by local town officials to investigate the beheading of a visiting knight. Adapted from one of Indrek Hargla’s novels, the first film is remarkably similar to Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, a Sherlock Holmes-style mystery that takes place at a monastery and features a similar twist at the end (that I won’t spoil here). The Dominicans, Brotherhood of Blackheads, heretical orders, and pirates all have something to do with this murder, and Melchior is left to bounce from one villager to another in medieval Tallinn as he tries to solve the mystery.
And while the plots of The Apothecary and Name of the Rose share some common ground, the comparison works on a deeper level too. Eco, heralded as the founder of the academic discipline of semiotics, knew the value of a well-placed symbol—and his masterpiece of a book is littered with some of the best uses of symbols in all of literature. And Nüganen (as well as Hargla, I imagine) tells this story through the liberal use of symbols. Most notably, the presence of animals (rats, a snake, taxidermied critters, etc.) operate in a folkloric manner, and a chessboard with amazing hand-carved pieces all but spells out the film’s general thrust. Smaller and more subtle symbols (and signs) abound as well, including perhaps Melchior’s biblical name. The color red, for example, appears to have different associations for each character, meaning that through color choices alone characters bump heads and loyalties.
The motivation for the murders is more or less solved rather quickly and involves a mystery “Prisoner of Tallinn,” whom the city’s institutional bodies exercise great hesitance to relinquish. The social structures that hold together the medieval city are intertwined and interdependent, as if their fate is shared. The murder(s) thus represent more than a threat to individuals’ feelings of safety or agitate the viewer’s stress levels; they gamble with the fate of the city, and, as the end of the first film will have it, maybe of all of Christendom.
In the first film, Melchior is basically a medieval cop without a personality. He’s a general proponent of goodness, something that many recent detective stories completely lack, but I’m not sure this is enough to make him a well-rounded character. This is not a bad thing, per se. He’s both flat and active, serving as a mirror into the film’s more rounded characters, like love interest Gerke (Maarja Johanna Mägi), or Keterlyn as she goes by later in the film, or the eager to help Dominican brother Hinric (Ken Rüütel). Melchior’s basic flatness makes the film work. Think Paddington (2014), only he’s a sexy Estonian apothecary instead of a talking British bear.
Unlike Sherlock Holmes or Benoit Blanc, Melchior’s crime-solving is less about individual acts of violence than it is about restoring or cleansing social institutions. The church isn’t rotten to the core, unlike, say, the cops in The Batman (2022) or the family in the first Knives Out (2019). Characters believe deeply in their respective institutions, especially in the second film, and there’s a sense that Tallinn isn’t much without them. I don’t mean to moralize or suggest that all films should have a pedagogical purpose. I don’t think that’s true, and movies would be boring if so. But given the way our contemporary landscape has been functionally allergic to such things when it comes to films crafted for a large general audience, it’s refreshing to see a detective story with a societal crux again.
The second film is a solid sequel. Melchior the Apothecary: The Ghost, produced at the same time as the other two films, doesn’t repeat the proven script from its predecessor—a distinct choice in a time marked by the comfort of predictability. Melchior is much more interesting and seems to have desires and aspirations, certain trusted characters from the first film now seem sketchy, and the filmmaking itself borrows from horror as much as it does the mystery genre.
Moving outside of the Dominican Order (for the most part) and into the Pirita Convent, The Ghost gets its name from the supposedly wandering spirit of the dead daughter of a rich merchant. As if they saw something they shouldn’t have, those known to see her die shortly after. The “supernatural” elements play like a good episode of Scooby Doo and are mostly confined to the first half. Like Scooby Doo, the purpose doesn’t seem to be to actually scare but to set the mood of the mystery almost like an overture for a story that we know will ultimately be skeptical of supernaturalism. And in that sense, I think it works.
The romance between Melchior and Keterlyn plays a bigger role here too, especially in the second half of the film, once again pointing to the popular appeal of these films (and something generally lost in American popular cinema). Think of how asexual Western blockbusters have become, unable to show their leads actually desiring another. (For homework, read Bloodknife’s article “Everyone Is Beautiful and No One Is Horny”.) In one shot– I believe it’s in the first film– Keterlyn bites the air around Melchior’s face as she enters his apothecary, asserting her physical (or sexual) power over his physical space. The moment made my audience laugh, and it is funny, but it’s also full of character. In another shot from the sequel, we glimpse Melchior’s ass and even the bottom of his testicles. Try to picture Chris Evans in a like role for an American historical mystery. The shot would be sacrilegious to his pristine image, too risky of alienating a certain type of more conservative moviegoer. Though there is nothing sexual about the sequence itself, it’s an exemplar of the understanding of the first two Melchior films, like previous generations of popular filmmakers, that audiences crave sexual energy and horny protagonists in popular genre movies.
They aren’t perfect– far from it– but Melchior the Apothecary and Melchior the Apothecary: The Ghost are illustrative of what popular cinema used to be and could be again.
Melchior the Apothecary
dir. Elmo Nüganen
Melchior the Apothecary: The Ghost
dir. Elmo Nüganen
Screened at the Emerson Paramount Center Saturday, 3/4, and screening virtually (MA only) from 3/6-3/19 – see the BBFF website for details.