Another vital act of preservation brought to these shores via MOMA’s To Save and Project Festival, Mikko Niskanen’s Eight Deadly Shots (1972) stands as a harried, intimate epic, a 316-minute examination of the ways that alcohol ravages the life of one ne’er-do-well moonshining farmer (Niskanen himself) and his family in rural Finland.
Originally broadcast as televised installments, the film, like both the drinking and agrarian lives, feels cyclical, with periods of despair giving way to bright, sober spring. Bumbling in and out of odd jobs, forever short on the money the government insists he owes, Pasi, the glum farmer played by Niskanen, clambers home drunk, fights with his wife, sometimes gets arrested—if only he could put the drinking behind him. But then when he does get it together and takes new jobs digging sewer trenches or chopping firewood, his days pass in such frozen misery that surely a nip couldn’t hurt, right?
That all this will result in tragedy is a foregone conclusion; the surprise, and the great rewarding pleasure of this great and rewarding film, is that such a story could also be a record of a vanishing Finnish rural culture, with many scenes of spirited toiling—the tree-chopping in winter is especially fine—and civic life: a wedding, dances, the bustle of the general store. When there’s no booze around, the family scenes are warm and humane; with booze, they’re hot and painful. “If you’re born in the middle of nowhere, you will stay there. That’s how it is,” Pasi says. Niskanen, who wrote and speaks that line, stands as its refutation: Eight Deadly Shots re-creates scenes he witnessed in his own childhood, but does so for the world.