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‘Gavagai’ thoughtfully examines life’s big issues

“Gavagai” (2016 production, 2018 release). Cast: Andreas Lust, Mikkel Gaup, Anni-Kristiina Juuso. Director: Rob Tregenza. Screenplay: Kirk Kjeldsen and Rob Tregenza. Web site. Trailer.

The road of life is full of twists and turns, many of them unexpected. How we address them is crucial, for they help to shape the individuals we become, which, in turn, further shape the lives we continue to experience. But, in the midst of the hubbub of everyday existence, sometimes we lose sight of this, thereby drawing attention to the need to consider what we hope will come out of life’s challenges. Such is the experience of a pair of unlikely traveling companions in the meditative new release, “Gavagai.”

Affluent German businessman Carsten Neuer (Andreas Lust) has a heavy burden weighing upon him. Having recently lost his wife, a translator of the works of famed Norwegian poet Tarjei Vesaas, he feels compelled to honor her memory by finishing a project she started, translating the poet’s verse from its native tongue into Chinese. Given the significant language differences, the undertaking is considered virtually impossible. However, Carsten believes that completing his late wife’s work is the best way to pay respects to her, no matter how difficult the venture might be.

To seek inspiration for this, Carsten decides to travel to rural Norway, Vesaas’s birthplace, hoping that walking in the poet’s footsteps will help to put him in a proper frame of mind for finishing this translation. However, there are a few challenges with that. Logistically speaking, the poet’s birthplace is somewhat remote, so simply getting there takes some effort. To make the journey easier, Carsten hires a guide/driver, Niko (Mikkel Gaup), to take him there. Although Niko is initially reluctant, he quickly relents when he learns of the hefty fee Carsten is willing to pay him, money that will come in handy in light of the pittance he’s earning from his business as a wildlife tour operator.

German businessman Carsten Neuer (Andreas Lust) seeks to come to terms with his grief over the loss of his wife while on a trip to rural Norway in the thoughtful new cinematic tone poem, “Gavagai.” Photo courtesy of Shadow Distribution.

This challenge pales in comparison to Carsten’s bigger issue – he misses his wife terribly, and his despair seriously distracts him from carrying out his mission, despite his apparent heartfelt sincerity for wanting to see it through. She’s constantly on his mind, diverting his attention from the project and keeping him from finding the peace of mind he so desperately seeks. Even being in the poet’s homeland doesn’t help to inspire him as much as he thought it would. However, his journey does evoke thoughts and images of a mystical nature, even though they’re not the sort he was expecting or hoping for. Instead of visions and insights that remind him of the author, he’s flooded with memories and apparitions of his late wife, distracting him even more and hampering his work.

To complicate matters, Carsten is quietly irritated by his guide. Niko and his client are anything but compatible. The lively, burly, affable Niko frequently tries to engage him in conversation and camaraderie, something in which the sullen Carsten has no interest. In fact, were it not for their business arrangement, Carsten would otherwise probably have nothing to do with him. But, as their journey together unfolds, it becomes apparent that they benefit from one another’s company as each of them needs a friend. Carsten can use a consoling companion to help him work through his grief, while Niko needs someone to help him come to terms with the news that his girlfriend, Mari (Anni-Kristiina Juuso), is pregnant with his child.

Through their travels together, Carsten and Niko seek to make peace with their issues – and with one another – so that they can move on in their lives. In doing so, they deal with the big issues – love, loss, life, death, friendship, maturity and the motivation to carry on under changing circumstances. The visions and insights that come to them during their journey help to provide them with the means to address these issues, both practically and philosophically. The experiences may be difficult, even painful, but they’re also transformative, helping them to realize what they need to do to get through their respective transitions.

In telling this story, director Rob Tregenza employs a quiet, meditative approach, cinematically fusing what’s going on in both the characters’ lives and minds. The imagery is complemented by narrated excerpts of Vesaas’s works, showing how the poet’s verse reflects the thoughts and impressions of the protagonists. When combined with the picture’s beautiful cinematography and its ethereal score, the film takes viewers on a vicarious metaphysical journey of their own, one designed to provoke thought and provide them with examples of how they can maneuver their way through the challenges of their own lives.

The cinematic merging of actions with underlying thoughts, as well as depictions of alternate paths of existence to the ones on which we find ourselves, makes for an inspired metaphysical tutorial. This is particularly true when it comes to illustrating the conscious creation process, the philosophy that maintains we manifest the reality we experience through the power of our thoughts, beliefs and intents. And, given that Carsten and Niko are each going through significant life changes, such instruction can be invaluable to them, as well as to those of us who are going through comparable circumstances.

Given where Carsten and Niko are at in life, they’re faced with significant changes to the lives they’ve known. They’re each trying to figure out why these alterations are happening and how they might cope with their new circumstances. And, considering the scope involved, they’re each up against formidable challenges in their attempts to move forward. But, before they proceed with developing the beliefs needed to formulate new plans, they must first come to terms with what they’re leaving behind – and believe that it is, in fact, time to let go of their old lives.

Like a butterfly emerging from a cocoon, the protagonists each struggle with their respective losses – Carsten of the passing of his beloved, Niko of the passing of his carefree days of independence – and their attempts at envisioning what lies ahead. For Carsten, this means a fresh start; he’s a relatively young man in good health and has the second half of his life ahead of him. And, as for Niko, this means finally settling down and taking responsibility for his life, especially now that his existence will be tied up in the lives of two others. Those represent significant adjustments to what they’ve known, so allowing themselves the time and space needed to accept and grow comfortable with these changes is thus crucial to let go of their pasts and turn the pages of their lives.

The beauty of the rural Norwegian landscape provides the backdrop for two unlikely traveling companions in the meditative new release, “Gavagai.” Photo courtesy of Shadow Distribution.

As they work through this process, they each come upon some intriguing realizations. For instance, their lives are, like the nature of the story, innately poetic. The voiceovers interspersed throughout the film illustrate this fittingly, showing how the characters’ beliefs, outlooks and actions are aptly reflected in the realities surrounding them. Is it any wonder, then, how anyone could doubt that our lives are indeed poetic representations of our minds?

Some specific elements of the story draw particular attention to this. For example, Carsten makes his journey to complete his wife’s work on a translation of Vesaas’s verse from Norwegian into Chinese, a project that that he freely acknowledges is virtually impossible. He clearly grapples with the task, reaching for words that can’t possibly do proper justice to the original sentiment. It really is the proverbial square peg and round hole conundrum. But, for Carsten, this is a quandary that he struggles with in more ways than just trying to complete a poetry translation. His quest to make the impossible possible also applies to his longing for his wife; he wants to be with her again, but it’s a quest that’s simply not achievable, no matter how much he seeks its fulfillment.

Coming to grips with the realization that certain impossibilities are genuinely unattainable is thus essential to Carsten’s odyssey of letting go and moving on. Only by accepting that fundamental truth and sincerely believing in its veracity can he make himself ready for the next chapter. The poetry project serves as a subtle but significant allegory of this notion, one based on beliefs he’s devised and must now come to understand and appreciate. This is far from easy, but it’s truly necessary to make the break he needs to move on.

Throughout all of this, the concepts of birth, death and rebirth are undeniably conspicuous in each of the protagonists’ lives, both literally and metaphorically. These big issues of life are something we seldom take the time to seriously ponder – that is, until events seemingly force our hand into doing so. Yet, given that our reality springs forth from our thoughts, beliefs and intents, these contemplative forays into our consciousness actually originate with us as well, often in the form of co-creations between us and others (in this case between Carsten and his wife, between Niko and his girlfriend, and, in its own way, between Carsten and Niko).

As we go about the business of daily life, most of us would probably just as soon not think about such matters. But, since they’re all inevitable parts of our existence, it would behoove us to take the time to give them some consideration, for how we address them in the here and now will ultimately have influence over how we experience them in the hereafter – and beyond. Getting our heads – and our beliefs – right about such issues is undoubtedly a productive use of our time, something we should make a practice of doing on occasion, and “Gavagai” serves as helpful reminder of this practice.

Of course, in finding meaning on such matters, we must each determine this for ourselves, given that there’s no universal, one-size-fits-all concept or explanation that applies to all of us. To assume otherwise is fruitless, and trying to make it happen in life (and death) is akin to what Carsten and his wife have attempted to undertake in their poetry translation. The inherent inscrutability in such ventures – be it in explaining the meaning of life or translating something from one language to another – is at the heart of what “gavagai” means, both as a made-up word from a nonexistent language and in the central message of this film. But, then, as conscious creators are well aware, finding our own meaning through our own beliefs is also at the heart of what it takes to manifest our individual realities and what constitutes them.

If it’s not apparent by now, “Gavagai” is not a picture to be viewed casually. Director Tregenza’s ambitious attempt at getting a handle on such heady issues as these is certainly commendable. Telling a meditative tale of life, love, death, loss, friendship and carrying on in the context of a road trip buddy movie in the wilds of the Norwegian countryside is certainly inventive, one that in many ways is reminiscent of the thoughtful cinematic tone poem “Columbus”  (2017). However, the film’s sometimes-cryptic narrative and cinematography weave a story that often feels padded and somewhat underdeveloped. Nice sentiments and heartfelt emotions permeate the film, but sometimes they’re depicted through photographic sequences that would benefit from some much-needed editing to make them more manageable — and meaningful. Enjoy this one as much as you can, and take time to appreciate the thoughtfulness it encourages in each of us, but don’t be surprised if it also starts to try your patience after a while.

Life goes by fast, sometimes a lot more quickly than we realize. Needless to say, it’s a precious resource we should never squander, one that we should appreciate and make the most of. But, to do that, sometimes we need to stop and take some time to assess it – what’s happened, what we’d like to happen and where we’re going. Periodically giving thought to the big issues that shape it, particularly the bookends that define it, would be in our best interests. Indeed, we should hope that, by doing so, we can avoid that regretful outcome of which Pink Floyd once sang so eloquently, “The time is gone, the song is over. Thought I’d something more to say.”

Copyright © 2019, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.

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