Don’t be fooled by the twinkly eyes, round tummy and red suit: “the real Santa was totally different. The Coca Cola Santa was just a hoax” relates little Pietari to his friend, as he explains what he’s discovered about the original Bad Santa.
Unnerving, funny, and inventive, Rare Exports combines an off-the-wall premise with excellent filmmaking.
Set in freezing Finland, it reimagines the origins of the Santa Claus legend and reminds us that so many fairy stories are partly, if not mostly, dark; and that children are often the victims.
Santa isn’t a rosy cheeked, cheery soul who likes giving out presents and eats too many cookies. Enormously tall, terrifying to look at and with huge curled horns, he makes Krampus look like Paddington.
And if you think he’s scary wait til you see his elderly, beard elves, racing naked through the darkness, like a naturist ZZ Top.
This is a creepy and discomfiting festive horror, and in no way a children’s Christmas film, even though small children are often bloodthirsty and not remotely sentimental. (“Does Santa have diabetes” my son asked me recently, having pondered the sheer number of treats the man is expected to get through in just one night.)
But Rare Exports, with its familiar movie tropes – businessmen digging for something entirely different to what they’ve told their workers, a kid who knows weird things are happening before anyone else, a family after a loss – combined with its dark side of Santa, is a perfect antidote to the sugary, sentimental overload we often suffer in movies at this time of year.
There’s certainly an element of satire; exposing how we’ve sanitised Santa while continuing to exploit people, even if we don’t actually tear children limb from limb or boil them in cauldrons like the original Evil Santa did. Later, as they try to sell a Santa to the businessman to make their money back, they simply dress him in a red and white suit, as really that’s all it takes.
Little motherless Pietari (Onni Tommila) lives with his dad Rauno (Jorma Tommila), a reindeer hunter, in the shadow of snow-covered mountain Korvatunturi. A company is drilling on the top of the hill, in theory looking at seismic activity; in reality manager Riley (Per Christian Ellefsen) appears to know more than he’s let on about the history of that hill, a discovery that is seismic in its own way.
Pietari, who has the same approach to dressing as my 4 year old (underpants, woolly jumper, wellies), spends much of his time up in his attic bedroom, while his dad butchers carcasses in his workshop across the yard. Reading up on the origins of Santa Claus, he scares himself so much with the spooky stories and menacing drawings that he staples shut the last door on his advent calendar to protect himself.
His best friend Juuso mocks him even as Pietari recounts how in ancient times the Sami people led the monster to a frozen lake, froze him solid then built a mountain around his body.
Just before Christmas a reindeer hunt results in only two being found; 400 more are found slaughtered on the white snowy plain. The drilling outpost, when they reach it to demand thousands compensation, is deserted; a huge empty crater sits where the top of the mountain used to be.
Then a naked old man, with whispy hair and a long beard, is found in Rauno’s illegal wolf trap; he’s unpredictable and violent, but it’s amazing how a red suit with white fur trim can transform somebody.
Director Jalmari Melander has created a film that is both chilling, bizarrely funny and properly festive. Horror tropes are given a new lease of life in this remote snowy outpost, while the sheer inventiveness of its story means it’s impossible to guess how it will end.
What works so well is the local people’s acceptance of the growing weirdness around them, easily coping with the cognitive dissonance of modern thought versus myths and legends, and quite unsurprised as the stories turn out to be true.
Cinematographer Mika Orasmaa has ensured that its location is clearly functional, designed for work in a tough landscape. It is beautiful too though, as the sun rises through a cleft in the mountains.
This is a freezing and isolated place, near the Russian border – and the Russians are, in their absence, scapegoats for everything. When radiators go missing from everyone’s houses, and a woman’s hairdryer is also stolen, they are assumed to be the culprits: “it’s cutting edge technology in Russia!” says her husband. Russian wolves too are blamed for the mass slaughter of reindeer after apparently breaking through a fence.
The border also seems to be a metaphor for the line between myth and modern life. The children easily criss-cross backwards and forwards through the hole in the fence without anyone knowing; later the men cross over and back too, though they have to shoot off the gate lock to do it.
The relationship between the taciturn Rauno, trying his hardest to be mother and father, and the thoughtful and inventive Pietari, is touching, as dad tries to produce the same Christmas that mum used to, the two of them working out how they can move forward as a little family. (Rauno’s homemade gingerbreads turn out to be part nourishment, part festive talisman and eventually part weapon.)
Pietrari has that childish blend of pragmatism, open-mindedness and lack of sentimentality that gives him the tools to solve the mysteries thrown up during the course of the movie; paradoxically it’s these traits that help him grow up.
The ending is a brilliantly quirky way to tie up loose ends and simultaneously explain the film’s strange title; a fairytale has been turned on its head to support the locals, who are now buying into the commercialisation of Christmas but for their own ends.
Watch the trailer for Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale: