European Union Film Festival: Estonia's Demons attacks casino gambling with a familiar fervour

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Demons

Starring Tambet Tuisk, Ain Lutsepp, and Ene Jarvis. In Estonian with English subtitles. Unrated

Estonia has only really had gambling, in the sense that North Americans experience it, for about 17 years. Lotteries and scratch tickets, etcetera, are controlled by the republic's post-Soviet government and the proceeds are distributed to charities, amateur sports, health, education, and the like.

Casinos have existed for a shorter time, and many of them have gone under recently, a decline attributed to the general worldwide financial crisis of the past several years. But if many more films like Demons are produced in this small Baltic member of the European Union, casino attendance might plunge even more.

Demons is the first feature by director Ain Maeots, and it would be simple to say his lack of experience shows, but that would probably be more of a reaction to the seemingly naïve fervour with which he attacks the very notion of gambling.

The film hangs on the decline of three dissimilar people caught up in the madness of compulsive gambling after being innocently introduced to the lures of a big-city casino.

Maeots focuses on the lives of a grandmotherly math tutor, a young ad exec, and a warehouse supervisor, none of whom are known to each other. The troubles start, by and large, with some almost accidental winnings from a slot machine, a card table, and roulette, and the addiction takes hold with almost comic rapidity. Financial need combines with the attraction of seemingly easy money and quickly leads to lies told to loved ones, responsibilities shirked, trusts broken, and lives ruined.

Demons has been described as a tragicomedy by some, but the humour is pretty hard to find here: the end result of the trio’s dicing with destiny is almost uniformly tragic, even though these citizens are, or were, decent, upstanding souls.

For viewer comfort, there isn't even the slight satisfaction associated with their downfall that one could muster, say, after the bloody demise of a sexually active teen in a slasher flick.

Most of this has been done before, and better, and most of that came out of Hollywood decades ago. But as a reaction—even an overreaction--to a relatively recent social concern (or a social evil), we can probably cut both Demons and Maeots a little slack.

After the Soviet Union’s collapse, the Estonian film industry reached its nadir in 1996, when only two documentaries, and no feature films, managed to get produced. The government-funded Estonian Film Foundation, which encourages international coproductions, came about the next year, and the movie biz has been expanding steadily, if not dramatically, ever since.

The best, undoubtedly, is yet to come.

Demons screens at the Cinematheque on Thursday, November 29, at 8:35 p.m.

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