‘The Ancient Woods’ Review: Deep in the Forest

When I learned that the director of “The Ancient Woods” had dreamed of making his movie since childhood, I was not surprised in the least. Mindaugas Survila understands the peace, wonder and eeriness of a forest. His film envelops us in the sights and sounds of its inhabitants with a fidelity and a shifting sense of mystery that rewards sitting in a cinema rather than the window-on-the-world posture of home viewing.

Shot and edited over four years, the film’s views through towering old-growth trees in Lithuania are immersive. Survila chooses moments with a poetic, sometimes slightly off-kilter eye that’s evident from an early sequence: an eagle poised to devour some meat gets distracted by a raven nipping at its tail feathers. Elsewhere, a nesting dormouse yawns, then self-wraps with its tail and leaves, like a Beatrix Potter illustration come to life; owlets stuffed into a tree hole like cotton balls are suddenly dwarfed by a swooping parent. Even a minor deer herd mesmerizes: we watch their watchfulness.

The sylvan soundtrack is so sharply rendered as to refresh our words with meaning: bellows, croaks, buzzes, knocks and a veritable beating of wings. A human does appear in this wild drama, but he’s a walk-on (and there’s no schoolhouse voice-over). Survila’s approach allows the animals their independence, a sense of their quiddity that respects their being. I’m not clear on why a European bison is heaving around a log at one point, but neither can I turn away from marveling at its investment in the activity. You do you, bison.

The Ancient Woods
Not rated. Running time: 1 hour 25 minutes. In theaters.

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