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BLIZZARD OF SOULS (2020) review

January 24, 2021


written by: Boris Frumin and Dzintars Dreibergs
produced by: Dzintars Dreibergs and Inga Praņevska
directed by: Dzintars Dreibergs
rating: not rated
runtime: 104 min.
U.S. release date: January 8, 2021 (virtual cinema) & January 29, 2021 (Music Box Direct


“Blizzard of Souls” isn’t a World War I movie that sets out to offer something sweeping and epic, nor does it desire to follow a historic timeline. It’s the kind of war movie that thrusts viewers into the mix by providing and staying with the point of view of a young protagonist who is thrust into war. The directorial debut of Dzintars Dreibergs is an impressive adaptation of a semi-autobiographical novel from Aleksandrs Grins published in 1934 and it feels very much like a personal account of the surreal violence and brutality of war. It’s a coming-of-age tale set in an impossibly harrowing time, that looks at devotion to family and loyalty to homeland in an immersive manner.

The film follows Artūrs Vanags (Oto Brantevics), who is introduced as a sixteen-year-old young man living with his parents and brother on their family farm in Latvia. His family life is content and he is in love with Mirdza (Ieva Florence), a local village girl. However, it is 1915, a time when the Germans have starting advancing on Russia and inevitably Latvia (which is under Russian rule at this time in history), will be changed once the incoming Germans arrive. Indeed Arturs life is upended when his mother (Rēzija Kalniņa) and dog are shot dead in front of their home by German soldiers, while his brother and father are away, motivating Arturs to exact vengeance.



With his older brother Edgars (Raimonds Celms) already left for military training, Arturs is determine to sign up for the Latvian riflemen, a battalion of the Imperial Russian army, but due to his age it takes his father (Mārtiņŝ Vilsons), a commended veteran marksman, to vouch for his youngest son. Soon, both Artur and his father are enlisted, with the elder Vanags given a commanding position in the army, overseeing his teenage son and other young men unaware of the horrors that await them.

Eventually Arturs forms a bond with his fellow soldiers, such as Mikelson (Jēkabs Reinis), Konrāds (Gatis Gāga) and Spilva (Renārs Zeltiņš), establishing camaraderie that will prove valuable on the coming battlefield. They first train with wooden rifles and fake grenades, creating their own explosion sounds while enacting battle tactics, but when the see a German plane fly above their camp (witnessing something they’ve never seen before), and the threat becomes all too real as they have to seek cover and retaliate. Arturs is wounded more than once, one injury finds him in a hospital where he encounters Marta (Grēta Trušiņa), a kind volunteer nurse around his age. The perilous situations and devastating losses Arturs witnesses around him over the next couple years during his time in muddy trenches and foggy barbed wire-filled war zones serve as a shocking and cruel coming-of-age hell.

The story that director Dreibergs adapts with Boris Frumin is one that immerses viewers in one harrowing situation after another, evoking a nerve-wracking or heart-wrenching response from the audience. The goal here isn’t a history lesson, but rather a first account reminder of the horrors of war and, considering a Latvian perspective on WWI hasn’t been seen on screen (at least not to this viewer’s knowledge) before, “Blizzard of Souls” is a compelling and welcome addition. The production design is impressive, especially how locations and costumes were made to be period specific without feeling like a war re-enactment exercise. The characters and their environments feel authentic and lived-in, which lends itself to the many immersive qualities of the film.

“Blizzard of Souls” conceivably earns its title with a brutal opening shot of a howling, snow-swept battlefield as cinematographer Valdis Celmiņŝ scans over the landscape of fallen (likely frozen) soldiers, reminding us that these are souls that have been snuffed out. As the film unfolds, we’re introduced to the Vanags family and the events that lead up to that opening, and a question that has come to mind during the viewing of many war films: At what cost is war?



Once Arturs is surrounded by mortar shells going off around him and bullets whizzing passed him, he witnesses fellow soldiers dropping in front of him or getting their heads blown off while seeking the same cover behind a tree. Youthful Oto Brantevics (in an impressive acting debut) excels at portraying the sudden shock of it all, especially when we struggles with his first enemy kill. Although he signed up to avenge the death of his mother, Arturs turns out to be more of a lucky survivor than a noble hero, and such a portrayal lends itself to the hard realties soldiers have experienced for centuries.

A rare element that “Blizzard of Souls” offers the war film genre is how loyalties and affiliations can turn the tide of war. While a losing side is often captured in war films, hearing that Germany has been defeated in this story is cause for celebration, yet there is a shift when the Latvians seek independence from under the strong arm of the Soviets. Tired men who once aimed their rifles at German soldiers for the Soviets find themselves now surrounded by propaganda against revolting their leaders as Latvians sought to for independence. A war-weary Arturs finds himself a participant and witness to all of this and his beleaguered mental and physical state is apparent as he tries to navigate his next steps. As “Blizzard of Souls” closes, the innocence has faded from Arturs, as it does every soldier, and seeing him and Marta reunite and embrace is a welcome exhale for these characters and the audience.

To compare it to recent war films, “Blizzard of Souls” is reminiscent to “1918” and “A Hidden Life”, at least those are the two that came to mind while watching. Like those films, director Dzintars Dreibergs brings visual surprises and a contemplative look at the psychological impact of war.

Released in Latvia in 2019, “Blizzard of Souls” resonated with audiences in a tremendous way. Within its first five weeks, the film was seen by more than 200,000 people, making it the most-watched film since the restoration of Latvian independence. It is official submission of Latvia for the Best International Feature Film category of the 93rd Academy Awards in 2021.



RATING: ***1/2



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