By Oliver Sargeant
What are myths, tales or stories? They’re seemingly a fundamental fact of society. How seamlessly they can engender themselves as building blocks of society and culture, even when they blur the line between reality and the surreal. As this film illuminates, the camera both shows and accompanies the movement and voluminous presence of being in reality, which then, in subtle music tones and stylized artistry, steps beyond reality itself. It sets on a maiden voyage on the narrow borders of reality and fairy tale, always privy to both, but never to call port. Stories from The Chestnut Woods places itself in a quasi-real space, where the beauty and mystique of the mythical Slavia Veneta (The Land of Chestnuts) lacerates and drives into the seriousness of Slovenian forced emigration.
Božič says his movie is a homage to all those in a similar position, that is, a position where one’s world is forcefully uprooted. It is a call to recognition of forgotten worlds and the helpless souls who witness the collapse of their society from within. The protagonist of the story, Mario, The Stingy Carpenter, finds himself in a dying land but is unable to truly grasp its collapse. He is aggravated by an ever-increasing impoverishment because his skill as a carpenter should be earning him more, that is, if he were in a big city like Malian. Yet in the countryside on the limitrophe of old Yugoslavia; the worth of his skill is yet another crumbling memory. Mario is our zero-point perspective of a fading world.
People keep reminding him that he lives in a forgotten land, but he clings to his world and dream-like hallucinations as light is slowly torn from its once-grand illumination.
We are reminded that due to the post-second world war economic distress, many inhabitants of The Slavia Veneta, and even Italy for that matter, were employed in Belgian mines as a cheap workforce. People were relocated as far as Australia, and as the stories go, never to return. The call for foreign labour presents itself as the event horizon of a black hole, inevitably severing off abled workforce without word or trace, and so too is Mario’s son Germano, The Lost son, forever lost. But critically, we have those who are left behind, seeking escape, and Marta, The Chestnut Seller, is our case example.
Marta is our most fairytale-esque character, who lives a life by selling chestnuts in order to afford a ticket to Australia (where her husband has presumably immigrated to). But selling chestnuts averages well below the necessary income to afford such a ticket, due to the inherently unstable nature of the occupation. Yet the gravity of reality and its dizzying anxiety is counterposed by poetic imagery and sound. She lives in a fairy tale house in the middle of the woods, caught wandering through lush forests of green cloaked in a dream-like crimson. She works in magical forests of pink, surrounded by autumn’s leaves that drift effortlessly without the hint of damp or mud to sully the image. All the while teetering on the realms of plausibility as she struggles to subsist, and is further plagued by the memories and visions of a husband, who is, “away at work”. Marta, just like Mario, treads the line of reality and the surreal, without overstepping the mark to either territory.
Stories from the Chestnut Woods reminds us how tales, myths, or stories support our existence. How we are always existing with, or orbiting around a narrative, in a trajectory of uncertainty. We have Mario’s story of rejecting a dying world, Marta’s story as the woman left behind, the combination of them both in the story of Mario paying for Marta’s voyage to Australia. I can only imagine the latter is the type of story that would circulate with such fierce velocity, that it could ubiquitously preside as an idea of a hopeful escape for all those left behind. And finally, Germano’s tale, for all those given as a cheap labour force to other countries. These stories are overall, embodied in an allegorical atmosphere, punctuated by folk symbology and musical rhythm.
It is a must see for anyone interested in the relation between myths and society, or the function of the surreal in the commonplace.
Stories raises the question, that if our world starts to move into turmoil, where possibility stagnates and the machinations of exterior wills bend and shift our movement, do we begin to grasp onto tales and stories of the surreal, to help ground our lives in familiarity and certainty, even if futile? In other words, do we become our own masters of diegesis?
Stories from the Chestnut Woods trailer:
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