By Amy Nicholson
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The Finns called him their Valentino, the "Wild Bird" of the national cinema. BAMcinématek is using the more prosaic "Master of Melodrama." But to judge from the four-feature sampling that begins Monday, director-writer-producer-actor Teuvo Tulio (1912–2000) is a cinematic "found object" as ferocious as South Korea's outlaw genre artist Kim Ki-young (subject of a recent Walter Reade retro) or the Mexican maestros of the cabaretera who may someday get their due.
At once arty and artless, stark and fulsome, Cine Tulio is characterized by an exaggerated emotional intensity and an equally primal lack of self-consciousness. Here is a filmmaker indifferent to mismatches, shamelessly dependent on musical cues, and hopelessly addicted to blunt metaphors. Robust open-air photography alternates with morbid studio expressionism. Healthy eroticism merges with punitive Puritanism—both are equally natural in Tulio's stormy universe. His movies are desperate and insistent, sometimes clumsy but never less than forceful. Tulio's strenuous lyricism allows the objective correlative to run wild: Verdant fields in super-abundant close-up segue to shots of raging rivers or low-angle figures framed against buttermilk skies.
In their pantheist abandon, Tulio's melodramas seem characterized by a specifically Nordic frenzy, the feeling of an entire summer telescoped in a single day. Tulio, however, was a nationalized Finn—exotic to them as well as us, and perhaps even to himself. He was born Theodor Tugai on a St. Petersburg–bound train, child of a Turkish-Polish father and Persian-Latvian mother. Beginning his career at the end of the silent era as the smoldering protagonist of Dark Eyes and The Gypsy Charmer, Tulio broke into directing in the mid '30s and turned independent producer in 1939, specializing in popular dramas of deflowered country girls and the cads who betray them. Although such fallen-women sagas fell from fashion in the 1950s, Tulio continued making them into the early '70s when a run-in with Finnish censors caused him to withdraw into embittered obscurity and pull his movies from distribution. His subsequent rediscovery is partially due to the enthusiasm of Finland's best-known international director Aki Kaurismäki, a more drolly understated master of melodrama who, as R.W. Fassbinder embraced Douglas Sirk, took Tulio as his idol.
BAM's retro opens Monday with Tulio's earliest surviving movie, Song of the Scarlet Flower (1939), based on a novel filmed 20 years earlier by Finland's first major filmmaker (and Greta Garbo's discoverer), Mauritz Stiller. The central character is a Finnish folk hero, the footloose lumberjack or log-rolling "shooter of rapids." A jaunty seducer in a leather jacket and wide-brimmed bolero hat, Olavi (Kaarlo Oksanen) cuts a swathe through the summery countryside, breaking hearts as well as logjams. Typically for Tulio, Song of the Scarlet Flower pivots midway with a change in the weather. The carefree scamp is crushed beneath lowering skies and the realization of the misery he's caused. It's not an easy road to redemption. Olavi must first negotiate nuptials ruined for him by the realization that his bride may not be marrying a virgin—not the last of Tulio's violently traumatic wedding scenes.
Kaarlo Oksanen has a similar role in In the Fields of Dreams (1940), showing November 10. Here, however, he plays second fiddle as despoiler of the innocent servant girl Sirkka (beauty queen Sirkka Salonen, Miss Europe 1938), the movie's central character. Their meet-cute is appropriately tumultuous. The default Tulio opening montage (sylvan stream, blooming lilies, grazing farm animals, summer!) is subsumed by images of surging waters and the master's onrushing team of horses. The wagon knocks humble Sirkka off her feet, and off the road, scattering the berries she's gathered. Naturally, she will pay for a few moments of love with years of unwarranted suffering: There's a child born out of wedlock. And then the infant is stolen. Malicious neighbors accuse Sirkka of drowning her baby. She's found guilty in court and sent to prison—although, for all that, the movie has an uncharacteristically happy ending.
Finnish film production halted during World War II. Tulio served as a combat cameraman and, on his return, relocated his settings from the countryside to the big city. The Way You Wanted Me (1944), showing November 17, begins with a drunken sailor wandering the harbor to pick up a broken-down hooker; Tulio dissolves from her garishly painted face to the fresher visage of her innocent teenage self, detailing the chain of events that led Maija (Marie-Louise Frock) to her present degraded state. An island girl jilted by her sailor boyfriend because of a family feud, she's forced to find work in the Helsinki of depravity, which is visualized as a succession of bars, ranging from the classy nightclub where a chanteuse sings "Stardust" in English and waitress Maija is impregnated by the owner's son, to the hooker dive in which a more bitter Maija twice re-encounters her first love, to the sophisticated gentlemen's club where she is briefly the toast of town.
As Olavi seduced a succession of naive girls in Song of the Red Flower, so Maija is betrayed by a series of duplicitous men—among them a Nazi (or Soviet) spy. Given this Job-like saga's absurdly escalating melodramatic twists (including a surprise, implacably accusatory appearance by the heroine's irascible mother), The Way You Wanted Me can be easily imagined as fodder for Kaurismäkian irony. Tulio, however, is in no way detached: He opts for unrelenting intensity and, since the ending is known from the onset, the systematic obliteration of false hope.
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