The Disciple is set on an island inhabited by a family of four. Vilhelm, the man of the house is in charge of a lighthouse situated here while receiving some assistance from his teenage son Gustaf (Patrik Kumpulainen), who works his days just to be able to prove to his father that he is indeed worthy of succeeding him. Vilhelm’s wife finds solace in music with the help of a piano while their daughter, the youngest member of the family, gets by playing with a dog in their barn. A boat approaches the island. Its only passenger is a young boy who introduces himself as Karl Berg (Erik Lonngren) . He becomes Vilhelm’s disciple.
At first, Vilhelm dismisses the boy as just another kid. But the boy proves time and again that he is young, strong, capable and a quick learner. Vilhelm slowly begins to see that Karl can be put to use and effectively does so. Karl has been sent from an abusive orphanage. He bears signs of whip lash on his bare back. Although critical by nature, Vilhelm eventually takes a liking for Karl. He sees Karl as everything his own son is unable to be. He decides to adopt the boy, welcoming him not just to his new job, but to his new family. While Gustaf doesn’t fare at his academics nearly as well as Karl, Finnish film-maker Ulrika Bengts resists the temptation to paint him as an easily replaceable entity. She shows us that Gustaf is actually more of an outdoor person. He’s an expert with the sextet, good at swimming and excellent at navigating the boat. He even lets these skills rub off on Karl. His father knows nothing of Gustaf’s hidden abilities and continues to find ways to reinforce his own belief, that his son is indeed useless.
Vilhelm grows to despise his own son, whose very presence seems to remind the man of his failure as a parent. Karl, who has never received such praise, who has never felt more worthy in his life, who for the first time feels a sense of significance, uses this to his advantage by stealing Gustaf’s sextet and boasting to ‘their’ father about his adept handling of the marine device.
A sibling rivalry slowly finds its way into the house. Gustaf begins to feel sidelined for Karl while Karl begins to feel empowered in the process, slowly beginning to share the same critical view of Gustaf as the man of the house. I liked how director Ulrika shows how they’ve traded places by showing Karl sitting at the table waiting for lunch to be served while Gustaf is helping his mother get the table ready.
We are slowly revealed more shades of Vilheml’s dark personality. On the outside, he is a classical stoic. But, in fact, he is someone secretly imploding at his inability to derive any pleasure from life. This inability is triggered by his wife when she plays the piano. And once again by his daughter who nurtures puppies in secrecy afraid that her father will drive them away. Vilhelm, upon seeing that he’s not given what he believes is his fair share of respect, vindictively hurts them. The piano is set ablaze and the puppies are drowned. But not at the cost of getting his hands dirty. He enforces his foster son, Karl, with the responsibility of carrying out these inhumane acts while providing him with a false sense of security and belongingness. The mother attempts to shield the girl from these dark realities of the world they live in by singing to her when her beloved brother is getting whipped. This is more deeply felt when the film cuts from the suggestive visual of her puppies being drowned to the mother reciting a story to the little girl. This coping mechanism disturbed me far more than the acts that call for it.
*SPOILERS* How this turns out is quite interesting. On some level, it is even depressing. We’re shown Vilhelm to actually be a weak, pathetic, self-loathing man who has killed a part of himself in trying to hold the fort at home. He’s lost touch with his own inner child and feels emotionally numbed. But he doesn’t feel like much of a man either. Even the smallest liberties taken by his family members seem to threaten his sense of authority. And he hits back with tyranny.
*SPOILERS* When he was finally torched by his family (a move of desperation to save themselves), I couldn’t help feeling sorry for him because he already seemed to torture (and be tortured by) himself enough. He survives and is back on the mainland doing something better suited to his now reduced capabilities. He cuts off contact with the boys, both of whom he considers grave disappointments and asks to meet with his wife and daughter. The boys are hurt and confused, but they are finally free and liberate themselves by comfortably co-existing with each other on the same island.