Pilgrims, Lithuania’s official entry for the 2023 Best International Feature Oscar, solves a murder mystery. Laurynas Bareisa’s impressive debut – which premiered in Venice last year – subverts every expectation of the tired true-crime genre to focus on the scars violence leaves on the families of survivors.
The plot follows Indre (Gabija Bargylite) and Paulius (Gedrius Keila) as they travel through the unremarkable town of Karmelava, a sleepy suburb of Kaunas, Lithuania’s second city, retracing the final steps of Matas, who is close to them both. Assaulted, kidnapped and killed in a horrific random attack four years ago. As devotees following the Stations of the Cross, Indra and Paulius visit the site of Mathas’s abduction, they search for the stolen car, the river where the killer dumped his body. They’re not trying to track down the person responsible—we soon learn that Matas’ killer was caught, tried, and imprisoned—but to understand how such a thing could happen.
“I think sometimes that’s the problem [with true-crime stories] It’s a fascination with the criminal, because by building a mental portrait of the killer you humanize him most of the time and end up blaming the victim,” Baresa says. “I wanted to push this other narrative as a kind of counterbalance. [I’m] Less interested in the crime than what happens around it and what happens to the victims. How we deal with trauma and the difference between personal trauma and public trauma.
Baresa also subverts the audience’s dramatic expectations, shooting Pilgrims Chronologically – no flashbacks to the crime scene – and using carefully composed, almost static, establishing shots. There’s no violence on screen — producer Clementina Remykite said one of the film’s teenage actors, a 13-year-old, attended the premiere “because there’s nothing worse for them to see” — but Pilgrims Maintains tension and suspense by slowly revealing emotional connections between characters, victim and crime. As the story progresses, Indre, initially a side figure, takes center stage. Her trauma becomes the crux of the film.
In its final reel, Pilgrims Pulls back further to explore the impact the assassination had on the entire community. As Indre and Paulius explore Karmalava and talk to its inhabitants, it becomes clear that everyone has participated in the event in one way or another, and that a cloud of collective guilt hangs over the town. At one point, a local shows a patch of bush and recounts the story of a rape there, before listing a series of other atrocities that happened nearby, from a man who killed his family and set fire to his house, to a mass grave discovered after WWII.
“That scene opened the door for me to make the connection between personal tragedy and community tragedy,” Baresa says. “I think we are [in Lithuania] There is a problem with living on layers and layers of history, and this history is not processed [we] Keep forgetting.”
This version of Presented by THR Presented by REASON8 Films.