One night, the Latvian newspaper editor and his wife are enjoying Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly,” where Melanie Vanaga can lose herself in its most famous aria, “Un bel dì vedremo.”
The next day, Soviet security police pound on the door of their Riga flat, barge in arrest them all — husband Alexandrs (Ivars Krasts), Melanie (Sabine Timoteo) and their pre-teen son, Andrejs (Edvins Mekss).
Their crime? “Fascists” — the catch-all accusation that served every Soviet need when it came to purging the intellectual, the leaders and the educated from a sovereign state they would absorb. Latvia and the Baltic States were but a 1941 warm-up for the rest of Eastern Europe.
“The Chronicles of Melanie” tells this story through the displaced and imprisoned Melanie, separated from her husband, struggling to keep herself and her son alive in a Siberian gulag filled with women and the low-life Russian predators charged with working them to death.
Writer-director Viesturs Kairiss based this film on the memoir of Melanie Vanaga, which she was only able to publish after the Soviet Empire crumbled and Latvia regained its independence. It’s a moving if somewhat stately (slow) drama of tragedy, privation and perseverance, with hints of poetry poking through the permafrost.
Because Melanie, rendered in shades of resignation and stoic defiance by Timoteo (“180 Degrees”), will not let go of her language, no matter how many Russian brutes who demand that they all “learn a civilized language.” She may fight pigs for the potatoes their captors feed the hogs with, but not eat what her son finds in the Russians’ waste.
“We are NOT going to eat trash!”(in Latvian, with English subtitles).
And she won’t lose the memory of the world they left behind, family holiday feasts, culture and art and “Madama Butterfly,” which returns to her memory and the soundtrack at several poignant moments.
Kairiss filmed this in flat, somewhat featureless black and white, so there’s not a lot of visual lyricism to his treatment of a hard-edged story.
Told she has 15 minutes to ready for transport, Melanie makes her child join her in wolfing down food because “We have no idea when the next meal is coming.”
A mother of small children, taking in the shock that “our husbands were killed,” takes a razor to her children and then herself in the crowded cattle car that hauls them all thousands of miles to the East.
An older woman, casting her eyes on the tractless forests of Siberia where their rudimentary camp has been set up, wanders into the woods to die. And no one stops her. Bodies are scattered everywhere, and losing a toddler means haggling with a callous local carpenter over nails.
Being women, the propositions by the guards have an have-sex-and-eat-or-die bottom line.
Melanie won’t give up, and won’t let her son give up either — through years of hardship, sickness and despair and a diet consisting of whatever herbs and berries they can sneak out and pick, and “400 grams of bread a day,” which is instantly cut to 200 because she speaks out, a “smart ass” surrounded by uniformed thugs.
“If I die, leave me in the taiga,” she instructs one of the few friends she recognizes and clings through through the ordeal. “It’ll be easier on my son.”
“The Chronicles of Melanie” lacks much of the agency and action of many such memoirs. The chief villain (Viktor Nemets) is left under-developed, and there’s barely a hint of an “escape attempt,” and no sense of deliverance.
But it is a vividly detailed reminder that the Axis powers did not corner the market on genocidal cruelty in the years surrounding World War II. The Russians kept at it for years afterward, and only those who endured the unendurable would live long enough to see the truth come out.
MPA Rating: unrated, graphic violence, rape, cruelty
Cast: Sabine Timoteo, Edvins Mekss, Ivars Krasts and Viktor Nemets
Credits: Written and directed by Viesturs Kairiss. A Corinth Films release.
Running time: 2:00