One can only imagine the unsettling rural environment that Timo Mukka, the author of the novel that would become the film, Maa On Syntinen Laulu (The Earth Is A Sinful Song), was raised in during his short life. Born in Sweden, Mukka’s family migrated to the village of Orajärvi in Northern Finland during the last months of the Lapland War, a rarely spoken of conflict that was separate from World War Two which was fought between Finland and Germany from September 1944 to April 1945 in Finland’s northernmost Lapland Province. After fascism had been defeated, Mukka’s village was divided between conservative Lutheran Laestadianist Christians and communists, and it is in that kind of Lapland village with its diametrically opposed social and political attitudes that would become the setting for The Earth Is A Sinful Song.
The film follows a sexually awakening young woman named Martta Viitamäki (Martta Mäkelä) who lives in a one room farmhouse with her grandfather (Aimo Saukko) in a small village in Lapland. Though they share the room, Martta sleeps in the nude, which is a source of duress for her grandfather, who scolds her in a shockingly vulgar fashion. Soon, Martta is up and about, tending to her farming chores. Given the simplicity of these moments, I am immediately reminded of Liv Ullman’s 1995 adaptation of Kristin Lavransdatter, the Norwegian historical novel about the travails of a farmer’s daughter who grows up during the 14th Century, except The Earth Is A Sinful Song is set shortly after The Lapland War, in 1947. There is nary a modern element in this village, and this adds to the timeless naturalism of the film. This very well could be the Scandinavian village from Kristin Lavransdatter, not only due to the homes, wagons, and sleds, which appear to be those of a different century, but also, as we will soon find out, the primordial ways that the inhabitants behave behave towards each other.
This is a poor village village where Martta begins to explore her options for a man, but it is also brutal beyond the butchering of animals that is commonplace on a farm (not for the faint of heart as the beatings of horses, dogs and killings of animals are all real in a way that makes the electric hammer in a slaughterhouse seem like a kiss on the forehead). At the end of one day when the village gathers for a dance by the water, a drifter who is dancing with some of the local women gets murdered, which receives the reaction that one would expect when finding roadkill: “What was he?” “Oh well.” and life goes on. When Martta’s grandfather works all night to only end up delivering a stillborn calf of a woman’s prize cow, there is only a small moment of pause before the cow’s owner offers a fuck to grandpa as a form of payment. In fact, most of the film is delivered in such an unsentimental way, creating a harsh documentary-like feeling, which also borders on nihilism. You await the moment when someone becomes affected by the grotesqueness around them, but rest assured, that will be a long wait. Adding into the daily atrocities towards animals throughout the film is the hideous response to Martta’s growing desires as a woman, which is met with the occasional grope and rape from the boorish men in the town. As horrible as all of this sounds, none of it is sensationalized, which is an excellent show of restraint by first time feature director Rauni Mollberg. Though tough to watch at times, the almost absurd nature of the goings on play into the overwhelmingly realistic and somewhat claustrophobic feeling of this town.
Needless to say that at this point the romantic prospects for Martta seem slim; that is until Oula (Niiles-Jouni Aikio), a boyishly handsome and sweet reindeer herder and salesman, comes to town. Oula also has an eye for Martta, and after a quick scene in which a group of reindeer are corralled and stabbed repeatedly in a scene reminiscent to many a drunken Memorial Day picnic in Philly gone wrong from my youth, they talk of sex. In fact after the Caligulaesque bloodletting of the reindeer sale, the whole town starts in on a bit of a bone sucking-marrow guzzling Roman-era orgy with its ferocious pairing off, which goes so off the rails that the other faction in town evokes the power of everyone’s favorite party killers, the clergy. In fact, this is the hardcore, one-room-God-forbid-you-fall asleep-for-a-second kind of sermon that scares everyone straight for a moment with the threat of hell fire. I write “just for a moment,” as Martta, who is now pregnant with someone’s child, turns her attention to Hannes, a young naive boy in the village who Martta seems intent on schooling in her favorite pastime while she awaits the return of Oula. With all that is happening in Martta’s sexual explorations, you await her grandfather’s reaction, which ends up being fairly passive, despite a few rude comments. It is only when Juhani, Martta’s usually absent father, comes into the picture that you see a day of reckoning looming over Martta and her illegitimate child. Juhani carries a level of self-loathing and violence that goes well beyond any of the rogues we have seen so far in the film. This will get even uglier quickly.
The Earth Is A Sinful Song is one of those rare films that manages to juggle intense drama with a naturally flowing storytelling style that keeps the viewer engaged in a way that you feel that you are watching a perfectly constructed documentary. Much of the success can be attributed to Mollberg’s cinéma vérité approach to the characters created by Mutta that offers a snapshot of the politically bipolar community where the author was raised. The town reveled in its post war sexual freedoms as much as it was repelled by them due to the teachings of their organized faith, creating an antithetical, passively brutal yet hedonistic society.