The “inciting incident” in the Latvian drama “The Pit (Bedre)” is so chilling that we judge the kid committing it instantly and in the harshest terms. There’s a younger child, a little girl, literally in a pit, and he’s doing a Latvian “eenie, meenie minie moe” about whether he’ll help her get out.
Markus, played by Damir Onackis, is a dead-eyed, soulless monster. He doesn’t speak up when the child’s frantic mother (Inese Kucinska-Lauksteine) bursts in on his grandmother Solveiga’s (Dace Eversa) community choir practice, looking for her missing child.
When he and Grandma are confronted later, after little Emily’s been saved, he doesn’t give away any emotion. And Solveiga seems quick to take offense at the accusation, and quicker to chew out the kid because “I have to LIVE here,” (in Latvian or “Lettish,” with English subtitles).
His whole family is so hands-off in their dealings with him we have just a moment to wonder if he’s some eastern branch of the Children of the Damned. He talks back, screams “I HATE it here” and sees no real repercussions. But he’s living with Grandma for a reason. His artist-father has died. His mother isn’t in the picture, and the 10 year-old from Riga is stuck in a village where everybody knows everybody else’s business.
His family has secrets, and perhaps even a reputation.
Even Markus’s one passion, drawing, gets him labeled. His pictures are “violent” and suggest “a warped mind.”
But fleeing the little girl’s bullying brother one day, he stumbles into an elderly recluse living on the edge of town. Grandma sometimes sends things to “Sailor” (Indra Burkovska) and has Markus deliver them. Once the fear and mutual mistrust abate, the kid sees the stained glass Sailor used to create, and sailor figures out the child is gifted enough to draw faces that could be transformed into windows.
Markus has a secret mentor who teaches him how to cut glass and thread the “lead veins” that hold it together. But the incident in “The Pit” hangs over him and threatens to cut off this one outlet, the one normal thing in his seriously disrupted life.
Director and co-writer Dace Puce (“Manny”) beautifully depicts small town provincialism and the ways families with “history” can be trapped by it, hemmed in by judgmental neighbors, unable to bury the past because they know their neighbors know, and haven’t forgotten.
Markus is portrayed as both a troubled loner and an observer. Whatever the Latvian equivalent of “Little pitchers have big ears” is, that’s him. He knows what others say about him, hears the scheming of little Emily’s mother and feels the blows of Grandma and others’ efforts to shed him.
He catches hints of the abusive, drunken fights mechanic Uncle Roberts (Egons Dombrovskis) has with the cowering wife (Agata Buzek) he wants to have a baby with. The kid wonders what his great Uncle Alberts (Aigars Vilims) is sneaking around behind his son’s back for.
The script serves up many puzzles, including the original inciting incident. It’s a film not so much intent on solving every one, but on showing what all these secrets and all this “history” and psychological baggage does to the sensitive boy, and the myopic ways small towns deal with square pegs, especially those who might be a danger.
The “misunderstood artist” may be a big fat metaphor at the heart of it all, but it is an apt and moving one.
Puce finds fear and a disheartening, misdirected fury in all this, and pathos in its resolution. And she does it in a subtle but provocative drama that may not make the Best International Feature Oscar field, but is still one of the best pictures of 2021.
Cast: Damir Onackis, Indra Burkovska, Dace Eversa, Inese Kucinska-Lauksteine, Agata Buzek and Egons Dombrovskis
Credits: Directed by Dace Puce, scripted by Jana Egle, Monta Gagane, Peteris Rozitis and Dace Puce. A Film Movement+ release (Dec. 17)
Running time: 1:47