Stories from the Chestnut Woods could so easily have been a misery memoir or poverty porn but thankfully it’s not. Instead director/writer Gregor Bozic has crafted an elegiac film of real beauty and poignancy.
It’s set on the border where old Yugoslavia (now Slovenia) meets Italy, a region that’s been in decline for a long time and, judging by most of the houses and the people in them, has seen better days. The people who are left are either old, or they’re young and have a plan to get out quick and take advantage of the prosperity that’s transforming much of the rest of Europe in the post Second World War era.
Mario (Massimo De Francovich) represents the former. A kindly but careful carpenter we meet at a bar where he plays a hotly contested local variation on rock, paper, scissors before heading home to be fed by his wife Dora (Giusi Merli), who complains about not feeling well.
Did you bring in the wood, he asks. And the water? She replies that she did. You can’t be that ill then, can you, he reasons logically, the wife clearly pegged as a beast of burden. But she is ill, and soon, in the film’s most harrowing sequence, Mario and Dora are heading for the doctor’s on the back of a rickety cart, where without even examining her, the doctor comes to the brutal conclusion that, at Dora’s age (not yet 70, she says), the woman is done for.
Marta (Ivana Roscic) represents the latter, a young woman scraping a living from collecting chestnuts, who crosses paths with Mario after she loses a large haul of them in the river and he helps her fish them out.
Grateful, she invites him back to her place, where they talk, eat something, have a glass of grappa, neither of them in any hurry whatsoever – there’s nothing to be urgent for.
And, really, that’s it – an old carpenter with a dying wife at home, a young woman whose husband has gone away to work, discussing the day-to-day reality of this semi-existence, the possibility of leaving and working elsewhere, and whether the stories they hear of success in countries as far away as Belgium are true or just fantasy, a fairy tale. He (lying to himself to make life more tolerable) thinks they are; she (a different future still in front of her if she wants it) isn’t so sure.
It’s not much but it’s a solid enough footing for Bozic (and co-writer Marina Gumzi), DP Ferran Paredes and composers Heklá Magnúsdóttir and Jan Vysocky to construct a remarkably bittersweet portrait of a vanished life at exactly the point when it lost any means of replicating itself. Like careworn, overworked, under-appreciated Dora, it’s done for.
In its depiction of rural life, Stories from the Chestnut Woods owes a debt to Ermanno Olmi’s 1978 masterpiece about rural life, The Tree of Wooden Clogs, but Bozic adds an overlay of what would be called magical realism if it was more pronounced. Instead the fantastical elements – a musical interlude here, a gauzy grace shot there – shimmer at the edges, bolstered by performances that hover on the edge of archetype. Grimms fairy tales are in here somewhere too.
Audacious and whimsical, yet also grounded and given to odd moments of humour (like Mario trying to measure Dora for a coffin without her knowing), it doesn’t push its luck by being overly cute. Or, more to the point, this is a film that knows what it wants to do and does it.
© Steve Morrissey 2020