In the Summer of 1990, the Soviet Union teeters on the edge of collapse. As Estonia approaches independence, Tallinn’s basketball team must decide whether or not the participate in the USSR championship.
Ove Musting’s drama Kalev is a smart, well-paced blend of sports and political drama. On many levels it is rather traditional affair: there is an ensemble of players in the basketball team, and each is generally rendered in broad strokes. There is a grumpy coach with a heart of gold, and various conflicts with officials, referees, journalists, and families at home. There are conventions to the sports film, and Kalev mostly observes them. Where the film excels is in the way it intersects that conventional sports story with politics and history. It is based on real people and on historical events. While it is ultimately a question of whether or not the team will make the championship final, it is also a record of how the Soviet Union splintered, fractured, and ultimately fell apart.
There is a central concern to Kalev‘s cast of athletes and coachs. The almighty USSR may be collapsing around them, but the players get paid to play basketball. Refuse to participate in what may be the final championship, and they do not get paid. Take the money and play, and the fiercely aggressive spirit of independence that has overrun Estonia may cost them friends, fans, and even their safety. Many films are made about the uplifting and empowering nature of sports, but less pause to consider their political power. How might the Estonian public react to their sporting heroes playing for the USSR? How might they react if their national team actually beat the Russians on the eve of independence?
One core character is Jaak Salumets (a quietly powerful Mait Malmsten), the team coach who is in the difficult situation of running the team while also ensuring their personal safety and welfare. He carries a heavy responsibility, and thanks to Malmsten’s brooding looks and seemingly exchausted demeanour to audience really feels its weight. Another highlight is Gert Kullamäe (Mihkel Kuusk). He has been hired to play but struggles get selected for actual court time. Can he really claim to be part of the team if Salumets never selects him to play?
The richest element of the film is its late-Soviet setting. Cinematographer Rein Kotov does a marvellous job of capturing the decayed nature of 1990 Estonia. The streets are dominated by bold architectural structures, vivid on the outside but grim and falling apart within. It is atmospheric and haunting. It presses the tone of this particular time and place in a powerful way. It represents a key method through which Musting develops the corrupt, crumbling edifice that is his backdrop.
Tightly edited and well-scripted, Kalev is a strong sports drama and a valuable lesson in European history.
Kalev is screening in Sydney and Melbourne at the Europa Europa Film Festival in February and March. Click here for more information.