Rare Exports

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A movie for every day of the year – a good one

6 December

Saint Nicholas dies, 343AD

On this day in 343AD (or CE if you prefer), Nikolaos of Myra died. Born in 270AD, in Patara, Greece, to rich parents, Nikolaos was a devout Christian who became a priest, then a bishop and attended the First Council of Nicea, where he was against the Arian heresy (which states that Jesus is subordinate to God), and signed the Nicene Creed, which is still the mainstream declaration of Christianity to this day. On a less bureaucratic level, Nikolaos became known for the miracles he worked during his life (bringing murdered children back to life, making wheat appear from nowhere on a ship). He also had a reputation for secret gift-giving, having saved three sisters from a life of prostitution by giving them enough money for a dowry, and for leaving coins in the shoes of poor children who left them out for him. The patron saint of sailors, merchants, archers, thieves, children, pawnbrokers and students, in various different countries, Saint Nicholas is still known as Sint Nikolaas in the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg, which is shortened to Sinterklaas, from which the English language gets Santa Claus. Because of the legacy of Nikolaos, in many parts of Europe 6 December is still the day for the exchange of gifts.

Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale (2010, dir: Jalmari Helander)

If you’re ever feeling overwhelmed by the sheer torrent of yuk aimed at you over the Christmas period, this Finnish film is a corrective high-pressure hose. It tells the story of the Nordic Santa, the real one, not the Coca-Cola one, a guy who eats naughty children rather than indulges them. From the get-go writer/director Jalmari Helander nails his colours to the mast, opening up his film with a sequence in which a man dismembers a pig (possibly a reindeer – it was dark), in a matter of fact way, because that’s how they live up inside the Arctic Circle. The story then springs into life when an old bearded guy is found in a hunter’s trap. He is detained and guarded and remains entirely silent except for the odd noises he makes when a child comes near. Who is the mystery man, and why are local children suddenly disappearing and reindeer turning up dead? It’s down to one local kid called Pietari (Onno Tommila) to sort things out, that’s if he can persuade his father (Jorma Tommilla, Onno’s real dad) that the guy is the real Santa, and prevent him from offloading Santa onto the company that’s been rummaging about archaeologically in a mysterious local mound. The film has a 15 viewing certificate in the UK, with the warning that it “contains frequent moderate threat”. We are in the territory of black comedy and horror, the sort of horror that will thrill children, then have them waking up in the night whimpering. At only a scant 80 minutes it’s a short film, but it’s a great one, full of pagan imagery, creepy atmospherics and depictions of an elemental approach to life. And it centres on this Santa who is genuinely unsettling, like some mad paedophile, who has “little helpers” who are about as far from cute as it’s possible to get. Rare Exports is rare indeed, and makes other attempts to refresh the Christmas offering – Billy Bob Thornton’s Bad Santa, for instance – look very thin indeed.

Why Watch?

  • The antidote to sickly Christmas movies
  • From inside the Arctic Circle – which is where Santa is from
  • It’s John Carpenter’s The Thing, Christmas style
  • Helander has a real eye for the arresting image

Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale – at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2013

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