A man stands menacingly in front of a defeated, restrained man in a dark garage.

Slamdance 2021 Movie Review: Jurgis Matulevicius’ ‘Isaac’ (2021) Is A Web Of Guilt

Guilt is always a complex emotion with a lot of nuance. Survivors guilt, deep guilt over a life changing mistake, guilt over neglecting a partner… guilt can manifest (and be handled) in a lot of ways. At its core, Jurgis Matulevicius’ directorial debut, Isaac (also known as Izaokas) uses it as connective tissue between characters.

Synopsis for Isaac:

Kaunas, Lithuania, 1941, Lithuanian activist Andrius Gluosnis kills a Jew, Isaac, in Lietukio garage massacre. Years after the incident, Gluosnis is haunted by the guilt.

If you can’t guess, the film’s primary focus is the guilt felt by Andrius over a haunting, impulsive murder of the titular Jewish man, Isaac, in the opening. It’s from there that the rest of the film’s dissection of guilt continues, showing how it’s a cycle ever-continuing until acted upon.

Andrius is played an ever distraught Aleksas Kazanavicius, who portrays him with a deep-seated anxiety throughout the film. He is unable to connect with his wife anymore, emotionally or intimately, and the guilt is disconnecting him more from reality every day. He reminds me a lot of the protagonist of Albert Camus’ The Stranger, Meursalt, completely disconnected and oblivious to changes in his reality, which leads to massive consequences for both characters…

Meanwhile, an old friend, Gedas (Dainius Gavenonis), comes back to town to shoot a film about the events of the massacre under the guise of historical documentation. It becomes quickly obvious that his claims and his actual intent are not one and the same and brings him unwanted attention from Andrius, paranoid of exposure, as well as a local investigator trying to find members of the mob who may have escaped justice.

Andrius leaning in to speak
Andrius confronts Gedas during pre-production of his upcoming film.

Interestingly, Isaac seems to want to portray guilt with a deep nuance, leaving much of the film up to audience interpretation. Gedas as a character seems to exist to condemn co-opting tragedy for one’s own means and motive without being a victim or participant, as his every action serves to get under the skin of Andrius and bring his buried past closer to the surface. This precise clashes with the nature of the film and its depiction of real life horror, yet instead, it ends up being a creative way to juxtapose the two ideals.

All of this seems to serve as a complete recommendation, but the film is not without any flaws. The editing shows a favoritism towards long shots, and while Narvydas Naujalis’ cinematography has a very kinetic and flowing style, the choices off the cutting room floor still seem to have left the film at a slow pace. I admittedly found myself distracted from Isaac and having to rewind a few times to make sure I was connecting each character to a proper place and time in the story. The film also has a strange habit of switching into full HD color some moments, and I personally could not find a connective reasoning for these switches.

Final Thoughts

While Isaac confronts some heavy themes with a dark style, I feel it’s own stylistic choices may hamper it from receiving wide attention from mass audiences. However, I feel like Matulevicius has made an admirable directorial debut, and his analytical look at the psychology of guilt—while it comes off as largely moderate in its decisions—shows an already defined stylistic strength to look forward to. If you can handle dark historical subject material and like more poetic, arthouse style films, I would recommend it to you!

Read our review of A Black Rift Begins To Yawn here from Slamdance 2021.

About Chris Filipowicz

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