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You Better Watch Out; Santa Claus Is Contemning the Town

MOVIE REVIEW
Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale (2010)

Rare-exports-a-christmas-tale
Oscilloscope Laboratories

Every so often a film comes along that so completely engrosses, bewilders and charms that it is guaranteed cult classic status; and Jelmari Helander's fiendish Finnish fable about the true nature of Santa is one such gem.

Set in the run up to Christmas in the barren and unforgiving mountains of northeastern Finland, the spiritual home of Santa, "Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale" relays the beguiling tale of a series of mysterious events that coincide with the secretive work of a team of scientists carrying out excavation work in the region. Local ruffian Pietari (Onni Tommila) and his bolshie buddy Juuso (Ilmari Järvenpää) stumble across these unusual goings on and get a hunch that something untoward is afoot as they witness a giant trap being set for an unknown bounty. So far, so spooky, particularly as Mr. Helander manages to instill this exposition with a pervading sense of danger and dread.

The plot thickens and indeed darkens when Pietari's butcher father Rauno (Jorma Tommila) ventures out into the wild accompanied by his roughshod buddies to round up the local reindeer only to find the entire herd viciously slaughtered. Mr. Helander doesn't shy away from the bloodshed, and it's quite apparent even at this early stage that this is going to be anything but a traditional children's Christmas story. In a further subversive twist, Rauno dares to blames their dissident Russian neighbors for their impending financial ruin and vows to get even. This thinly veiled political dig at the fractious historical relationship between Finland and Russia elevates "Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale" to delicious heights.

While Rauno suspects the Russians, Pietari has other inklings. Acting on his instincts, Pietari delves into the murky history of the origins and perpetuation of the myth of Santa, the apparent truth of which is far more sinister. It's not too long before Pietari's suspicions and indeed fears are realized, as a makeshift trap snares what Pietari suspects is the real Santa. Gone is the fluffy white beard and rotund joviality; this Santa (Peeter Jakobi) is sneering, snarling and naked. In a wonderfully tongue-in-cheek jab at the commercialization of the Christmas story, Rauno — resenting the hijacking of Finland's cherished Santa story — dresses his captive up and plans to sell him back to the Americans in the Coca-Cola manifestation that they might recognize.

Mr. Helander finds room for one last twist in a tense final act as Pietari discovers Santa is not what he seems, with the gravity of the situation far greater than they imagined. Cue explosives, violent death by pickax and hundreds of rampaging naked men; it certainly makes for a beguiling and fitting finale to a thoroughly enjoyable ride.

Tonally, it's pitch black; and Mr. Helander seems to have carved out a new cinematic genre in delivering a children's horror film that also manages to be smart and funny. Added to that, the scenery is visually stunning, the screenplay pithy and witty and the pace spot on. File "Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale" under the following: unexpected, inventive, satirical and brilliant.

RARE EXPORTS: A CHRISTMAS TALE

Opens on Dec. 3 in New York and Britain and on Dec. 10 in Los Angeles.

Written and directed by Jalmari Helander, based on an idea by the Helander Brothers; director of photography, Mika Orasmaa; edited by Kimmo Taavila; music by Juri Seppa and Miska Seppa; production design by Mr. Helander; costumes by Saija Siekkinen; produced by CINET/Petri Jokiranta; released by Oscilloscope Laboratories (United States) and Icon Film Distribution (Britain). In Finnish and English, with English subtitles. Running time: 1 hour 20 minutes. This film is rated R by M.P.A.A. and 15 by B.B.F.C.

WITH: Onni Tommila (Pietari), Jorma Tommila (Rauno), Per Christian Ellefsen (Riley), Tommi Korpela (Aimo), Rauno Juvonen (Piiparinen), Ilmari Jarvenpaa (Juuso) and Peeter Jakobi (Santa).

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