Last Exit To Tallinn

Together alone: Oksana Akinshina and Elina Benenson in 'Lilya 4-Ever'
Newmarket Films

Lukas Moodysson's previous movie, Together, a big-hearted comedy about a mid-'70s Swedish commune, ended with a rowdy soccer match in the snow and an ecstatic flurry of hugs and ABBA. At the beginning of his latest film, Lilya 4-Ever, a teenager desperately wanders the bleak streets of an anonymous city, bruised and bloodied and utterly alone. Together's rapid-fire montage of embraces is replaced by jump-cut images of pummeling uniformity: the frightened girl running and running, bereft of any destination but a final exit into eternity. Lilya 4-Ever, from its opening moments, marks the Swedish director's 180-degree turn from wry benevolence toward a grim, Loachian social realism. It eschews Marxist overtones, however, for a Christian vision of martyrdom in life and redemption in death.

Lilya 4-Ever is a Job story in which the plagues assume the form of just about anyone the protagonist encounters. Tomboyish and spirited at the outset, Lilya (Oksana Akinshina) hates her ugly cinder block of a hometown--described as "somewhere in what was once the Soviet Union," but identifiable as Tallinn, Estonia--as passionately as do the kids in Moodysson's debut feature, the teen-lesbian love story Fucking Amal (unfortunately released in this country as Show Me Love). She's overjoyed to be moving to the States, but the happy anticipation is short-lived. Her mother leaves a screaming and crying Lilya behind. Her ogre of an aunt appropriates Lilya's home and dumps the girl in a revoltingly filthy apartment. Her best pal Natasha (Elina Benenson) turns a trick at a dance club, then scapegoats Lilya when her dad discovers the money. Natasha reasons that it shouldn't matter to Lilya: "You don't have parents."

Lilya's only succor is melancholy Volodya (Artyom Bogucharsky), a younger, often homeless boy who likes basketball and sniffing glue. The red-diaper tots in Together liked to play "Pinochet"; Volodya likes to play dead, much to Lilya's dismay. He not only believes in heaven, he longs for it; although Lilya says the Lord's Prayer each day before a little painting of an angel holding a child's hand, the bulk of her faith lies elsewhere. "I'm not going to die," she says. "I'm going to America." Or Sweden: Her sad-eyed new boyfriend wants to take her there, get her a job "with vegetables--picking them or something." Instead, Lilya's new employer meets her at the airport, locks her in a room, rapes her, and sells her to an endless procession of johns--encapsulated in a harrowing close-up series of contorted faces, sweaty necks, grunting mouths. This grotesquely effective sequence conveys the systematic dehumanization of Lilya while admirably sparing the young Akinshina from having to simulate it further.

A staple of the European press is the terrible tale of the naïve girl from a former Eastern Bloc country: She responds to an advertisement for domestic work abroad, then finds herself trapped in a brothel. The inconvenient reality, however, is that the vast majority of these women know what they're getting into from the start. The sex trade in large swaths of Sweden has been taken over by gangs from Estonia, where prostitution is legal and the age of consent is 16--the same as Lilya's. An unwilling, inexperienced girl is too risky an investment with so many complicit candidates already available.

But Moodysson knows that the terrain of "complicity" is an impossibly murky one when you're talking about ill-educated young people with no money, no job prospects, and nothing to lose. Lilya's descent into hell may be too deep, unrelenting, and unwitting to work as a case study of the ravages wrought by market bolshevism and gangster rule; if the director had intended to make a straight docudrama, he might have focused on Natasha, who's chillingly casual about selling out both herself and her friend. Instead, Lilya's brutalized body and soul become a visceral metaphor for the post-Soviet spiritual rape of the working classes, the abandoned children of Mother Russia. (Secularists can take or leave Moodysson's Christian infusions.)

Though its content is cruel and barbaric, Lilya 4-Ever strikes a delicate balance of tones, alternating between detached vérité observation and slow-motion passages of keening emotionalism, between Nathan Larson's swelling score (evoking Barber's "Adagio for Strings") and pulsating house music. As an essay in degradation, the film splits the difference between the austere alienation of Robert Bresson's Mouchette and the spiraling, scalding operatics of David Lynch's Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me. (Lilya's beloved painting resembles the one that Laura Palmer hangs over her desk in Fire Walk; in both films, the pictures eventually come alive, as Moodysson and Lynch engage empathically with their heroines' ethereal wish-fulfillment fantasies.) Lilya 4-Ever is also the most expertly designed agitprop film that an NGO could ask for. "My intention was for the audience to just sit there and feel like they were being run over by a train," Moodysson explained recently. He has succeeded.

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