MORBUS – Death at a Funeral
Directed by Vallo Toomla
In their long and colourful history the Baltic States have geographically and culturally oscillated between affiliations to the Russian and the Scandinavian sphere of influence. So it is no wonder that Vallo Toomla's stunningly beautiful short film MORBUS seems like a brain-child of both Andreij Tarkovskij's poetic symbolism and Ingmar Bergman's formalistic psychology.
There are many things to consider and evaluate when watching this short masterpiece, but one should start, as the film does, with a small black circle, that just hangs there in the landscape. It's an astonishing yet simple cinematographic metaphor. It is aided by the fact that the style displayed in this film resembles that of a Calvin Klein ad, in crisp and clear black and white – there's no background, and not even any ground or sky, just masses of light, coming from all directions at once. This, we understand, is not any kind of space. The immediate artificiality of this no-space setting makes the black circle not only possible but also instantly recognizable as a complex symbol. When the boy interacts with this circle – or is it a hole? – it makes a sucking noise, and indeed it swallows one of its toys like a cosmic black hole. We think of the Warner Bros. cartoon tradition of the hole in the ground that you can paint onto any surface and jump through (and, best thing of all, grab through the hole from the other side and pull the hole down into itself to make it disappear so that no one can follow you); we might also think of Jorge Luis Borges' “Aleph“ and other literary or cinematic singularities. But what is it?
Through the eyes of the child we see the funeral of an old man. A single, withered tree stands in the background, like in Samuel Beckett’s famous “Waiting for Godot“. The old man says goodbye to his family and lies down into a coffin, with the family having its funeral feast in clear sight of the box, waiting for the old man to finally croak. It's an awkward situation, which triggers even more brilliantly incorporated pictorial references, from Leonardo da Vinci's “Last Supper“ to “Snow White and the Seven Dwarves“. But we will never forget the black circle: The family is spooning pitch-black soup and the camera even spirals down into the round, pitch black content of the coffee mug. Is this black circle a manifestation death, tearing a hole into the world? The child innocently plays around, lingering close to the corpse out of curiosity, examining the black hole, secretly downing a liquor himself and altogether behaving joyously inadequate. Finally, there's another funeral procession marching past – this one looks even more like Snow White and the seven dwarves, all of them in a very chipper mood, until Snow White turns into a nightmare harlequin laughing maniacal.
We return to the perspective of the boy and realize that this weird, somehow formal and space-less experience might actually be the impression a young child could indeed take away from a real funeral of his grandfather, which he doesn't understand: people laugh and sob hysterically and without any obvious motivation; and of course the grandfather isn't dead at all. He can't be. The boy has no concept for it. But despite all the surrealism and remoteness, despite the symbolism and the hallucinations, there actually is a moment of true valediction between the boy and the old man – a glorious and truly touching moment. And as if that was the thing the old man had forgotten he can now lie down for good. But for the boy, he still will never die. At least not until he somehow makes sense of this black circle that just hangs there in the landscape, sucking in everything. One day, he will understand.