The Disciple, Finland's Submission for the Academy Award Nomination for Best Foreign Language Film. U.S. : None Yet. Producer: Långfilm Productions Finland Oy
Human lives are in constant transition, always adapting to ever-changing, unpredictable circumstances. Part of that process often includes replacing things that are no longer useful or no longer exist. Separations, moving to a different city or a different school, and more definitively, death, force individuals to replace the people in their lives in order to fill a void or seeking a second change. That's what Ulrika Bengts' suspenseful drama The Disciple (Lärjungen) explores in an almost-deserted island that serves as a microcosm for her characters to fully expose their need to be in control.
Set in the late 1930s and shot with the simple beauty of a classic painting, from the first frames Bengts wastes no time in showing the quietly dangerous realm the island represents. Hardworking Karl (Erik Lönngren), a thirteen year old boy, has arrived as the only available person to assist the lighthouse keeper with the arduous labor. Displeased by Karl’s age and fragile appearance, Master Hasselbond (Niklas Groundstroem), the veteran lighthouse keeper and defacto ruler, wants to send him back, arguing that whatever he can do, his own teenage boy already does. His son and most faithful follower, Gustaf (Patrik Kumpulainen), is a noble kid who wants nothing else than to please his terribly strict father even if he ridicules him and constantly reminds him that he will never amount to much. Based on the fact that the foreign boy is willing to help him with his mathematic assignments, Gustaf develops a brotherly friendship with Karl, who is diligent and proves himself useful by working around the island. Soon Hasselbond notices Karl’s talents and plans to make him his protégé.
Unafraid to use violence to assert his power and retain control over his family, Hasselbond has banned his wife Dorrit (Amanda Ooms) from playing music and has forbidden the entire family, including his young daughter Emma (Ping Mon H. Wallén), from speaking about the death of their older brother Elof. The oppressor finds in Karl a vessel for his unfulfilled aspirations and strict moral parameters. He wants him to become what neither of his two sons could be in his eyes, which turns Gustaf’s amiable relationship with Karl into hatred. The screenplay by Roland Fauser and Jimmy Karlsson efficiently conveys the story of this man with a pathological obsession with power, and it does so without the need of a religious fanaticism subplot.
The two boys and the maniacal patriarch form a trio in which the roles of teacher and student are symbiotic. Gustaf realizes his father won’t recognize his achievements, while slowly, Karl settles into his role of the devoted son who is willing to follow Hasselbond’s orders blindly. Early in the film, the father struggles to teach Gustaf geometrical concepts related to squares and equilateral triangles, shapes that must have equal sides to be complete. He wants to raise the boys in his image, poisoning them with false righteousness and by that, replacing his late firstborn with Karl to complete his vision of a family, his personal perfect triangle. All three actors in the main roles superbly tackle the emotions of their characters, and play off of each other to make this unsettling family drama stunningly frightening.
Working with a seemingly simple premise, Bengts creates an alluring piece whose haunting musical score by Peter Hägerstrand truly becomes an invisible player in the story. Added to this, the misleading peaceful atmosphere of the isolated location conceals the menacing secrets hidden inside the lighthouse. Here, Bengts' characters form a cult-like community in which their evil leader is only preoccupied with living vicariously through another individual with the purpose of denying his responsibility in the family’s tragic past. Tense and strikingly beautiful The Disciple is a film about legacy, about parents' expectations of their children and the alienating lack of individuality those expectations can impose on them.