Written by Grigorijus Kanovičius, Vytautas Žalakevičius
Cinematography by Jonas Tomaševičius
Music by ensemble „Kertukai“ and D. Ožechov
Art directors Jeronimas Čiuplys, Vincas Kisarauskas
Costume design Filomena Linčiūtė-Vaitiekūnienė
Bronius Babkauskas, Vytautas Paukštė, Eugenija Bajorytė, Juozas Budraitis, Monika Mironaitė, Antanas Šurna, Artiomas Inozemcevas, Gediminas Girdvainis, Gintas Žilys, Juris Strenga, Alfas Radzevičius, Gediminas Karka, Laima Štrimaitytė (Žilienė) et al.
About the film
The theme of war and its echoes is of particular significance in the work of director Almantas Grikevičius – it is at the heart of his best features, Jausmai (Feelings, 1968), Ave, Vita (1970), Faktas (Fact, 1981) and other works. The war marked the childhood of the director’s generation, snatching away their loved ones. For that reason, it was very important for that generation of Lithuanian filmmakers to understand why they lost what they could have had, and that is clearly reflected in their films. As early as in his first independently made feature, Ave, Vita, Grikevičius sought to understand the past from the perspective of the present, to discover the human measure of history. Arguably one of his most important films, Ave, Vita made Grikevičius mature as a director, shaping his creative direction and style.
The film opens with a scene set in the present of the time. The TV shows a ballroom dancing competition, the dance is set to a contemporary arrangement of a Lithuanian folk song Pasvarstyk, antele by the musical ensemble Kertukai, an elderly man is sitting in front of the TV, looking at the screen without much enthusiasm and dragging on a cigarette. The man is painter Steponas (Bronius Babkauskas), the main protagonist of the film. For a moment, the camera follows a couple swirling energetically, but the next frame shows Steponas’ listless hand holding a smouldering cigarette. Life and death exist side by side. Such juxtapositions appear throughout the film: living/dead, history/present, youth/old age, determination/doubt. The transition from the present to the past occurs easily. “Ave, vita is also a road movie. It travels in time and space”, Grikevičius has said in the book by L. Kaminskaitė-Jančorienė and A. Švedas exploring his creative work, Epizodai paskutiniam filmui (Episodes for the Last Film).
On their journey through time and space, the protagonists are relentlessly haunted by the shadow of death. They succeeded in “getting a rain check from the Reaper” during World War II, but the Reaper came to claim what was due in the times of peace, while sitting in front of a TV screen. However, as the title suggests, the film celebrates life, believing in its uniqueness. “The feature asserts the value of every individual, the inevitable distance between generations, and the miracle of every life,” wrote late film critic Saulius Macaitis about Ave, Vita.
Steponas’ funeral is attended by his old friend Cezaris (Vytautas Paukštė). He is met by his daughter Veronika (Eugenija Bajorytė) and her taciturn husband Albinas (Juozas Budraitis). Veronika is a young, modern, intellectual, beautiful woman. She had stayed in touch with Steponas, perhaps even had a love affair with him, and is now writing a script about his experience in a Nazi concentration camp. She ponders existential problems – with her mind and heart – and tries to overcome her anxiety about the baby that is on the way. The character of Veronika, ever so delicate, restless, elegant, is clearly influenced by the French new wave that the director admired at the time.
In general, Grikevičius contributed a lot to the modernisation of the Lithuanian cinema language as he had absorbed and fused various development processes happening in the cinema world at that time: the above mentioned French new wave, the influence of the great Italian cinema masters, especially Michelangelo Antonioni, the new Polish and Czech cinema. Using cinema-specific means the director sought to open up the inner workings of man, delving not only into personal but also into universal human problems.
The changing relationship with history noticed in the world cinema did not escape the director – it was important not to judge or condemn but to raise questions that would help the viewer to take a stance.
That is why the film protagonists – Steponas, Cezaris and others – who miraculously escaped the imminent massacre at the hands of the Nazis, are not depicted as heroes (the way the TV reporters who obtrusively follow them around, insistently issuing commands, would like to present them), but rather by emphasising their humanity and torturous doubts. “I was neither a hero nor a coward. I was lonely,” says Steponas, recalling the story of his and his friends’ survival.
The plot is clear and simple, without much intrigue. Nazi soldiers are herding a column of people to where they are to meet their death. Although this is a clear reference to the fate of the Jewish people from the Vilnius ghetto, it is not underlined in the film. Conflicts erupt between the people – both the condemned and the perpetrators – walking in the column, the plot develops, interspersed by fragments of city life. Steponas is sent by a German officer to buy cigarettes and has a chance to escape but does not do so and rejoins the column. Paradoxically, another chance to (help)survive presents itself to him and Cezaris, by pretending to be mechanics who can repair a German car.
The film resembles a mosaic made up of associatively connected fragments of the past and the present. The dialogue is scarce, sometimes too literary. However, watching this film makes the intense thoughts running through the characters’ heads palpable, almost physically felt. “It is a truly philosophical film that conveys the very thought process,” wrote Macaitis about Ave, Vita.
Those are thoughts about man in the face of fateful historical events, about man’s choices, about assessing those choices from the perspective of time and that of the next generation(s). All that is inextricably linked – the past and the present, one person and the entire history. This is further affirmed by the quote from Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls chosen for the film’s epilogue, and by both the living and the dead gathered by the Eternal flame in the final shots.
– Neringa Kažukauskaitė