Estonia has a population of only 1.3 million. Yet, it has already earned one Academy Award nomination—for Tangerines in 2015. As a matter of fact, Estonia is the smallest country ever to gain an Oscar nomination. So, it is worth taking a look at its 2019-2020 Academy Award entry: Truth and Justice (Tõde ja õigus), a 2½-hour epic based on a novel by Estonia’s most famous author, Anton Hansen Tammsaare, that has set box office records in Estonia.

The story begins in the 1870s, as a young couple, Andres and Krõõt, arrive in a rural community to take over a farm known as Robber’s Rise. It is clear that to succeed, the land will need a lot of work, but they are up for it. They face an unexpected obstacle: their drunken, mean-spirited neighbor, Pearu, who has already driven away two purchasers of Robber’s Rise. However, Andres is strong and determined and not so easily discouraged. Meanwhile, Krõõt does more than her share of work, while also trying to provide an heir for Andres. But, to his disappointment, she gives birth to three daughters. Finally, on the fourth try, a boy is born…and Krõõt dies. Mari, the wife of Andres’ farmhand, Juss, takes care of the children until Andres can find a permanent housekeeper. At the local tavern, the men tease Juss, saying his wife is having an affair with Andres. There is no evidence that this is true, but Juss commits suicide anyway. And Andres marries Mari.

There are many stories about farmers overcoming adversity to make a success of their enterprises. But Truth and Justice is something of a genre bender in that Andres becomes a worse and worse human being: increasingly harsh and deceitful. He turns to the Bible for solace, but, in another genre bender, it only makes him an even worse human being.

The movie Truth and Justice actually only covers part one of Tammsaare’s five-volume epic, which takes the family story up to about 1930. In this sense, the film is like Pelle the Conqueror, the Danish film that won the Academy Award in 1989. The film of that name covered part one of Martin Andersen Nexø’s four-volume work.

The director of Truth and Justice, Tanel Toom, was previously nominated for an Academy Award for his 2010 live-action short film, The Confession. Producer Ivo Felt produced Tangerines, as well as one of my favorite satires, Mushrooming and the Golden Globe-nominated The Fencer.