Mariia Saakyan:The Lighthouse (Maiak, 2006)

reviewed by Josephine Woll© 2008

A bleakly beautiful landscape of barren rocky mountains and grey-green valleys, its location never specified. Houses half-demolished, their electrical supply unpredictable. Low-flying military helicopters; tracer bullets; train stations bulging with would-be travelers hauling half their worldly possessions as they wait for trains bound for somewhere, anywhere; distraught faces, outstretched hands. These compose the embattled world of Maria Saakyan's film The Lighthouse, shown at the 2006 Moscow International Film Festival. The ongoing war is in the Caucasus, the time is the recent past, but Saakyan avoids naming names: this could as easily be Nagorno-Karabakh as Chechnya, as easily Georgia as Armenia, where the film was shot.

Saakyan's heroine, Lena (Anna Kapaleva), takes a train from Moscow to her childhood home in part to retrieve her past, in part to retrieve her remaining relatives, a feisty and rather hostile grandmother (Ol'ga Iakovleva) and a warmly loving grandfather (Sos Sarkisian). She may also have returned to resolve a more personal crisis: a few lines in one scene intimate a possible pregnancy about which she is ambivalent, but she gets no bigger as time passes, so perhaps not. Once off the train, she trudges along rutted roads, pulling her incongruously modern wheeled carry-on bag behind her, till she arrives at her darkened, dust-cloth-covered home, where she plays old records (“Alice in Wonderland”), dons old-fashioned clothing, and remembers the past.

Despite the circumstances her grandparents do not wish to leave, but they strongly urge her to go and she tries to do so, repeatedly and unsuccessfully. Trains may come, but they rarely go, and her big-city assurance as she demands to see the station manager falters, useless in a reality of hordes of desperate passengers and no trains. In these scenes—a mix of documentary and fictional footage of people thronging the ticket window and the platform, watching hopelessly as a freight train passes with no space for human cargo, clutching children and bundles as they squeeze up the narrow steps into a compartment—The Lighthouse joins the long line of Russian films in which the train symbolized the hope for escape for suffering civilians from war's depredations. Here, as in many others, that hope is qualified, uncertain, and as fitful as the electrical power in the homes people are forced to flee.

Saakyan and her scriptwriter, Givi Shavgulidze, are less interested in Lena's particular story than in the plight of the village and its residents, all of them driven more than slightly mad by the two years of war they have endured. In a scene that could come from a Fellini film or from Philippe de Broca's anti-war film King of Hearts ( 1966), one of Lena's friends, Roza (Ruzana Avetisian), trundles her possessions onto a rickety pushcart. Trailed by a lanky “suitor” who sprinkles her with blossoms, she bids farewell to her neighbors and sets out for the station—every week. Another friend, an elderly neighbor played by the venerable Sofiko Chiaureli, breaks all the windows that remain in her apartment to fool would-be robbers into believing it is vacant: if only one window is broken, she wearily explains her north-by-northwest reasoning, they won't be fooled. Lena's closest friends, a couple played by Anastasiia Grebennikova and Mikhail Bagdasarov, try to maintain some level of normalcy if only for the sake of their young child, but the realities of everyday life—no running water, military planes interrupting an outing, periodic bursts of gunfire—mock the very notion.

The cast of The Lighthouse includes newcomers as well as veterans. Kapaleva, born in 1979, whose expressive face flickers with small changes, studied acting at the Stanislavskii Theater school and has already appeared in a number of films, some made for TV, as well as on stage. Sarkisian and Chiaureli have graced stage and screen for decades, winning every laurel available in both Soviet and post-Soviet times. Sarkisian has too little to do in this film; one wants more of him. Chiaureli stunningly depicts her character, her madness shot through with glints of sanity and a steady undercurrent of altogether understandable anguish.

Director Maria Saakyan studied at the State Film Institute (VGIK); her diploma film, a documentary entitled The Farewell (Proshchanie) , won a prize at the 2003 Erevan festival. She and her cinematographer Maksim Drozdov filmed The Lighthouse in short, often nearly wordless scenes and with a nearly stationary camera. Many of these individual scenes are quite beautiful: a swathe of mist over the trees, the flight of birds that is almost an abstract black-and-white painting, long (and lengthy) shots of rocky hills and empty roads. Often brief intervals of black separate these tableaux. The result, a series of carefully framed and often striking static images, bears the imprint of Sergo Paradjanov's style, especially in Sayat Nova (1968) , enhancing the sense of the physical environment as timeless and enduring, notwithstanding the violence perpetrated against it and its inhabitants. Perhaps because of her experience as a documentarist, Saakyan minimizes plot and character, and the absence of a coherent narrative can be confusing and even irritating. We never understand Lena's motives or much about her feelings, or her grandparents', and the lyricism of The Lighthouse's images does not always compensate for the lack of clarity.

The Lighthouse refers specifically to a small clay lighthouse Lena finds in her house, in which she places a lighted candle, and suggests the beacon that guides Lena's journey back to her self. The film may not work equally well on each of its levels, but it is an impressive accomplishment, especially for a director who has not yet turned thirty—and perhaps a beacon for what she can and will do in the future.

Josephine Woll
Howard University

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The Lighthouse, Russia, 2006
Color, 92 minutes
Director: Mariia Saakyan
Scriptwriter: Givi Shavgulidze
Cinematography: Maksim Drozdov
Music: Kimmo Pohjonen
Art Director: Ivana Krchadinats
Cast: Anna Kapaleva, Ol'ga Iakovleva, Sos Sarkisian, Ruzana Avetisian, Sofiko Chiaureli, Anastasiia Grebennikova, Mikhail Bagdasarov
Producer: Anton Mel'nik
Production: Andreevskii Flag Film Co.

Mariia Saakyan:The Lighthouse (Maiak, 2006)

reviewed by Josephine Woll© 2008

Updated: 09 Jan 08