Kung fu gospel: Estonian eccentric Rainer Sarnet returns with The Invisible Fight

The Invisible Fight (dir. Rainer Sarnet, 2023). Image: Homeless Bob Production

Filmmaker Rainer Sarnet occupies a special place in Estonian cinema – a point proven once again with ever greater intensity by his latest feature The Invisible Fight, fresh from screening in the International Competition at the Locarno Film Festival. Backed by Homeless Bob – a boutique production outlet run by Katrin Kissa that is ground-breaking for Estonian auteur cinema – Sarnet forms along with Veiko Õunpuu and Kaur Kokk a petit comité of non-conformist filmmakers with a unique vision, developing an innovative cinematic language to cover the emotional, philosophical, and aesthetic spectrum of contemporary Estonia.

Having first mastered his filmmaking skills in animation, Sarnet applies the ingenuity and unrestricted imagination typical of the experimental spirit of the Estonian animated tradition to his photographic cinema. Debuting with a visually flamboyant, flashy, and loose adaptation of Dostoyevsky’s Idiot (2011), in his first fiction feature Sarnet quickly established himself as a film artist with an idiosyncratic, auteurist style, in which imagery and script bounce off of one another. With the macabre November (2017), a tale of forest ghosts, werewolves, and other demons shot in elegant black-and-white, he opened the door to genre-mixing experiments, embroiling together pagan poetry, dark romanticism, and horror elements. The game continued in the same direction with The Diary of Vaino Vahing (2021), а cross between archival material, documentary footage, and theatrical performativity which manages to tell the complex story of the famous Estonian psychiatrist, writer, and playwright with universal relevance.

As for his latest work, the hilarious comedy The Invisible Fight, it is an unbridled and explosive blend of cultural codes, groping for the intersection between the rebellious moods of kung fu, heavy metal music, and Christian Orthodox psalms – all against the backdrop of a stylised vision of the Soviet Estonia of the 1970s. The plot revolves around Rafael, a heavy metal fan and motorhead who, funnily enough, enters an Orthodox monastery in the hopes of learning kung fu, while the monks hope to convert him to the true faith. These two worlds collide and interact in amusing ways, garnered with laughs and holiness, the refrains of Black Sabbath and Gregorian chants, with visual effects borrowed from animation to great comic effect. Yet, as Sarnet gradually reveals during our conversation, the film’s absurdist plot has more to do with real-life inspirations than it seems: ultimately, the film could be considered a full-blooded and authentic reflection of Estonia’s political, social, and cultural environment past and present, in all their exciting controversy.

Rainer Sarnet on the set of The Invisible Fight. Image: Homeless Bob Production

You made a pop-punk version of Dostoyevsky’s Idiot, and your film November was a fantasy horror with folklore elements. Could we say that The Invisible Fight is a kung-fu existentialist romance with elements of a musical? How would you define it?

The film opens with a quote from the Psalms: “Praise him with the drum, and dance.” So, my film is like a song of praise – with kung fu and dance. Actually, I wanted the whole film to be like one continuous dance. We tried to achieve this rhythmically in the editing as well. I didn’t have any intention to make a dance film, but to create one successive rhythm, like a vibration, that would carry the characters forward. Rafael is told that God has a design for him. He believes it and this belief carries him. It gives him strength, energy, and certain optimism – in case something goes wrong, he rises again and carries on. He trusts life. We called the movie “a rock’n’roll gospel”, or “kung fu gospel”.


How did you come up with such a hilarious plot? Was there a particular inspiration behind it?

Invisible Fight is inspired by a real monk, Father Rafael, who lived in the 1970s in Pechory Monastery in the Soviet Union. He loved to drive fast, he was called a hoodlum with no respect for rules, but he was also very charismatic. He had a big influence on young people and the art crowd. The film is not about his life, obviously. I took some details from his biography – the car, and his headstrong behaviour – but the story is my own and is partly based on my personal experiences, too. I visited the Pechory Monastery in Russia and Essex Monastery in England. Together with the cinematographer Mart Taniel, we went to Mount Athos in Greece. I was surprised by the monks’ sense of humour, they loved to make jokes.

Instantly, an idea formed that it should be a light film with lots of humour. In a book, an old monk asks a young one: what is the most important characteristic of a monk? Faith, the young man answers. No, sense of humour, the older monk replies.

Religion and kung fu were forbidden in the Soviet Union and practiced underground. They were like forbidden fruit to young people – tempting and offering a way to rebel against the system at the same time

Why did you decide to tie the kung-fu aesthetic to that of Orthodox Christianity?

I found out that Father Rafael served in the Soviet Army, near the Chinese border, and was attacked by Chinese bandits. From there on, a fantasy developed that the Chinese are adept at kung fu, and Rafael witnesses it. Rafael is completely in awe of this martial art, where people fly around as if there was no gravity. The Chinese are like angels, giving Rafael a new direction in life. Besides, kung fu is created by Shaolin monks. There is an old book among Orthodox monks called “Unseen Warfare”. Fighting has an important meaning in monks’ lives, but their fight is invisible and internal, a fight against their desires. It would be beautiful to think that Orthodoxy and kung fu are united by flying.


Would it be an issue in predominantly Lutheran Estonia if you had decided to present the Lutheran priests in such a funny light?

I didn’t want to make fun of anyone, but I wanted to make a fun film. I’ve had less contact with Lutheran pastors, but it seems to be true that humour is especially highly rated by the Orthodox monks and priests. For instance, Estonian composer Arvo Pärt used to visit Essex Monastery often with his wife, a place where Saint Sofroni lived, who has since been canonised as a saint. Arvo’s wife has been known to say that she has never laughed so much as when she was with Saint Sofroni.


Your background in animation must have contributed to the picturesque visual style, but also to the way your characters move around. What kind of visual references did you have in mind while working on the imagery?

I wanted the scenes to have some consistent framework. I was looking for poetic images. I did not wish to lose track of reality, but every artist has their own relation to it. In art, pure reality can never be created. Pure reality is a slow rhythm that continues throughout our lives. In cinema, you need to compress reality. In art, life looks as if through a mirror.

The Invisible Fight (dir. Rainer Sarnet, 2023). Image: Gabriela Urm

The Invisible Fight does not seem to be a political film at first sight, but there is political context in the background. Why did you decide to situate the story in Soviet times?

Religion and kung fu were forbidden in the Soviet Union and practiced underground. They were like forbidden fruit to young people – tempting and offering a way to rebel against the system at the same time. The church had no power during Soviet times, it resembled early Christian communities. The preachers were persecuted, but this lent the church purity and spiritual authority. Excessive collaboration with political power always undermines the credibility of the church. I didn’t touch upon the political aspect, and political power is being cheerfully ignored by the clergymen in the film. God’s kingdom is not of this world, as Christ taught. A Christian should be concentrating on the spiritual.


Do you identify with the spiritual wanderings of your main character, or with his personality in general?

Rafael is a fool who ends up in a monastery for the wrong reasons; he wants to learn kung fu. In a church, I also feel like a bull a china shop, considering that maybe I’m there for the wrong reasons too. In the Orthodox church, I am mostly amazed by beauty, art, and meditative prayer. But I have been told there that there is nothing wrong with the way I feel. People have to be who they are. Honest before God. Hence, the topic of the film is authenticity. The church is not a penal institution, but a hospital for the soul, where our soul is healed. Everyone has their shortcomings and deviations. It is usually perceived that there are only the right and the righteous in the church but the people there are the same as people everywhere. Some people are smart, some stupid; monks have their own flaws. Christ says that faith is like a mustard seed: a big tree can grow out of a small seed. Everything is not perfect right away. It takes time and patience. Maybe I am similar to Rafael in the way that I belong in the Orthodox congregation too, but I am not better than anyone else. And the joy. The joy that Rafael feels in the church concurs with my own experiences. There is a lot of joy. In the liturgy, icons, colours. You get part of the most essential thing from the go. There is joy even beyond suffering and death – in resurrection.

Mariana Hristova is a Bulgarian film critic, cultural journalist, and programmer, with a special interest in the cinema of the Balkan countries and Eastern. She is a regular contributor to Cineuropa, Talking Shorts, and Filmsociety.bg, a holder of Altcine.com’s film critic award, and member of FIPRESCI. She also acts as a Program Adviser at Sheffield DocFest.