Road trip movies in which the main character goes on a journey with his pet is not that unusual in the annuals of cinema although the pet is usually a dog (Kelly Reichardt’s Wendy and Lucy, 2008) or a cat (Paul Mazursky’s Harry and Tonto, 1974). What makes Janiksen Vuosi (English title, The Year of the Hare, 1977) decidedly offbeat is that the protagonist Kaarlo Vatanen (Antti Litja) bonds with a hare that his car has hit and nurses it back to health as they wander into the wilderness. Vatanen, a marketing executive, has become completely disillusioned with modern life and tries to abandon everything – his career, his wife, his possessions – and get back to nature, living off the land and the kindness of strangers. In the process, he discovers a new best friend in the wounded hare, which is never given a name.
Directed by Finnish filmmaker Risto Jarva and co-written by him with Kullervo Kukkasjarvi, The Year of the Hare may sound too whimsical and sentimental as a premise but the tone throughout fluctuates between a critique of urban living, pollution and capitalism and a gentle satire of rural vs. city dwellers. The entire film unfolds as a series of vignettes and visual anecdotes as Vatanen slowly wanders off the grid, encountering a variety of people on his transformation into a hermit. Meanwhile, the hare recovers from its injuries and provides the ideal listener to Vatanen’s complaints against the world.
When Vatanen first decides to go AWOL, he is still wearing his unfashionable seventies office wardrobe consisting of a white safari-like jacket, peach colored shirt, white tie and white pants. As he and the hare go further afield, he starts to look more like a homeless tramp in need of a shave. Along the way, he encounters other social misfits who have dropped out of the mainstream but are living in harmony with nature like Hannikainen (Martti Kuningas), a fisherman who temporary offers Vatanen and the hare food and shelter while sharing his strange theories about the current president of Finland, Urho Kekkonen (Hannikainen is convinced that Kekkonen’s head shape has changed noticeably over the years, suggesting that he has been replaced by an imposter).
For the role of Vatanen, director Jarva found the perfect actor to convey the main protagonist’s quiet rebellion against his lot in life. Antti Litja looks like a Finnish version of American actor Charles Grodin, a master at registering deadpan reactions to absurd situations but also bemused at the antics of authority figures like his scene at a rural police station where he is held for questioning. At the same time, he can become easily agitated or passionate about his beliefs as when he tells the hare, “You live on your urges but a human being has lost its instinct of self-preservation” or “Anyone could live like this [off the earth] if one could only understand.”
As for the featured hare, he is a natural scene-stealer and part of Jarva’s film is a chronicle of how strangers react to this odd couple in their midst. There are moments when you worry about predators in the woods attacking the hare or other people harming it like two hunters who want to shoot the animal and roast it. One particularly ominous looking loner even kidnaps the hare at one point and takes it to a sacrificial stone but abandons it there for Vatanen to rescue. So…you can see this is not exactly Walt Disney fare.
Still, there are plenty of lighthearted moments and social satire along the way as when a pompous Finnish tour guide with some international travelers descend on Vatanen’s hut, anxious to meet and snap photos of “a genuine Finnish hermit.” Their visit is made memorable by a fancy outdoor dinner party which becomes chaotic after the hare runs across the lavish spread, knocking dishes over and defecating everywhere. One particularly obnoxious tourist even consumes a pellet in her soup, thinking it was a caper. It might not be as gross as Divine eating dog poop in Pink Flamingos but it provides a welcome note of anarchic humor.
The Year of the Hare comes full circle at the end when Vatanen returns to civilization briefly in order to find a veterinarian to help treat the hare’s sudden illness (it recovers, no problem). Unfortunately, his return prompts a police investigation into his vanishing without notifying anyone and they threaten to press numerous charges against him such as neglecting to file a change of address form, hunting without a license and other asinine accusations. He is temporarily sent to jail and the hare is placed in the custody of the prosecuting attorney but the final twist is a miraculous resolution with a touch of magic realism.
In the end, The Year of the Hare proves to be a mediation on the healing and restorative powers of nature as well as an alternative view of a lifestyle that is the opposite of corporate culture and doesn’t exploit or harm the earth for profitability. Many of the themes that were prevalent in Jarva’s many documentary shorts – the deadening effects of technology, urban blight, environmental damage, mindless bureaucracy – are all present in The Year of the Hare, which would be Jarva’s final film. In a tragic turn of events, he was killed in a car accident after attending a screening and private party for the film on December 16, 1977. He was only 43 years old.
His importance in the history of Finnish cinema has only grown since his death. Jarva was one of the major mover and shakers in the Finnish New Wave movement of the 1960s along with Jorn Donner (Sixty Nine 69, 1969), Maunu Kurkvaara (Yksityishalue, 1962), Mikko Niskanen (Skin Skin, 1966). Finnish cinema would experience another renaissance of creativity and innovation in the 1980s through the work of Aki and Mika Kauriskmaki, who shared some stylistic similarities with New York indie director Jim Jarmusch.
Jarva’s breakthrough film was Tyomiehen Paivakirja (English title: The Diary of a Worker aka Not by Bread Alone, 1967), in which a welder and a clerk get married and face financial and emotional difficulties over their opposing political views. Ruusujen Aika (English title: A Time of Roses, 1969) is that rarity – a Finnish science fiction film set in the year 2011. Later works like Yhden Miehen Sota (English title: One Man’s War, 1973) were equally influential in their focus on the plight of Finland’s working class (it won the OCIC Award from the Berlin International Film Festival. As for The Year of the Hare, it won Best Director (a posthumous honor) and Best Screenplay from the Jussi Awards, which is Finland’s equivalent of the Oscars.
The Year of the Hare has been screened at film festivals and retrospectives of Finnish cinema over the years but it is currently not available on any format in the U.S. Perhaps this is a worthy contender for The Film Foundation’s World Cinema Project which preserves, restores and distributes neglected films from around the world.
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