Pilgrims, Lithuanian’s official entry for the 2023 best international feature Oscar, is a murder mystery about a solved murder. 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 that violence leaves on survivors’ families.
The plot follows Indre (Gabija Bargailaite) and Paulius (Giedrius Kiela) as they travel through the nondescript town of Karmėlava, a sleepy suburb of Lithuania’s second city, Kaunas, retracing the final steps of Matas, a young man close to both of them, who was assaulted, abducted and killed in a horrific random attack four years prior. Like devotes following the stations of the cross, Indre and Paulius visit the spot where Matas was kidnapped, find the car he was abducted in, locate the river where the killer dumped his body. They aren’t trying to locate the man responsible — we soon learn Matas’ murderer was caught, tried and imprisoned — but to understand how such a thing could happen.
“What I think is the problem sometimes [with true-crime stories] is this fascination with the perpetrator, because by building a psychological portrait of the killer you most of the time humanize him and can end up victim blaming,” says Bareisa. “I wanted to push this other narrative as a kind of counterbalance. [I’m] less interested in the crime itself than in what happens around it and what happens to the victims. How we deal with trauma and the difference between individual trauma and public trauma.”
Bareisa also subverts the audience’s dramatic expectations, shooting Pilgrims chronologically — there are no flashbacks to the scene of the crime — and using carefully composed, nearly static, establishing shots. There is no violence on screen — producer Klementina Remeikaite notes one of the film’s teenage actors, aged 13, attended the premiere “because there’s nothing bad for her to see” — but Pilgrims maintains tension and suspense by slowly revealing the emotional connections between the characters, the victim and the crime. As the story progresses, Indre, initially a side figure, takes center stage. Her trauma becomes the film’s core.
In its final reel, Pilgrims pulls back further to explore the impact the killing had on the community as a whole. As Indre and Paulius explore Karmėlava and talk to its residents, it becomes clear that everyone 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 nonchalantly points to a patch of bushes and recounts the story of a rape that happened there, before listing a series of other atrocities that have happened nearby, from a man who slaughtered his family and set fire to his home, to a mass grave discovered after WWII.
“That scene opened up the door for me to make the link between personal tragedy and the tragedy of the community, and of the country as a whole,” says Bareisa. “I think we [in Lithuania] have a problem with living on layers and layers of history, and this history is not processed [we] keep forgetting.”
This edition of THR Presents is presented by REASON8 Films.