Vera Storozheva: Traveling with Pets (Puteshestvie s domashnimi zhivotnymi, 2007)

reviewed by Elena Monastireva-Ansdell© 2008

One Size Does Not Fit All: Trains, Fashions, Mammals, and the Meaning of Life in Vera Storozheva's Traveling with Pets

"Natal'ia means ‘natural,'" a priest observes upon learning the name of the new parishioner who stays disturbingly unmoved during her husband's burial service. Struck by the young woman's emotional numbness, Father Petr gives her a holy icon to take home with her. The icon, known in the Russian Orthodox tradition as “Softening of Angry Hearts,” is an image of the Mother of God with seven daggers piercing her chest. The heroine's home is a bleak trackman's hut decorated with railway safety manuals and situated on a busy railway track cutting through a barren winter landscape. The heroine has spent more than half of her life in this soul-destroying setting, ever since her deceased husband “bought her as a slave” from her orphanage at the age of sixteen. Incapable of fathering a child, the trackman exploited Natal'ia as a servant and farmhand, selling the products of her labor to passing trains. His sudden death during one such business transaction brings the heroine her unexpected freedom, along with the necessity to build a new life for herself. Staggering through the desolate surroundings rendered unfamiliar by her husband's death, Natal'ia initially resembles a sleep-walker feeling for her path in the spiritual darkness as she sets out on a journey to reclaim her individuality and “soften her heart” for the people and the world around her. She sells her cow, buys herself a goat, brings home a stray mutt, and befriends a charismatic truck driver. All these steps are significant stages in the process of the heroine's emotional awakening, but as her name suggests, her path will ultimately take her away from the mechanical universe of trains with its predictable schedules and fixed destination points to a spiritual communion with a spontaneous and ever-flowing nature.

The theme of a personal search for a higher meaning in a morally disoriented and emotionally indifferent society has been widely explored in contemporary Russian cinema, most recently in such different road-centered films as Andrei Zviagintsev's The Return (Vozvrashchenie, 2003), Boris Khlebnikov and Aleksei Popogrebskii's Koktebel (2003), Aleksandr Veledinskii's Alive (Zhivoi, 2006), and Boris Khlebnikov's Free Floating (Svobodnoe plavanie, 2006), to name just a few. Vera Storozheva's Traveling with Pets shares several characteristics that define to varying degrees the above-mentioned films: movement through physical space that serves as a metaphor for the protagonists' inner processes of self-discovery and personal growth; plots that have elements of parable or magic realism; provincial Russia as a locale that is most conducive of inner reflection; natural and/or religious images as symbols of spiritual transformation or emotional maturation. With the significant exception of Alive , which tackles—however awkwardly—the moral state of Russian society in its direct connection to the long silenced Chechen war, these soul-searching films avoid engaging concrete social and political problems that plague Putin-era society, discussing instead their characters' morality in more universal terms. Traveling with Pets belongs to the latter category: references to contemporary, 21st century Russian reality are limited to a flat-screen television set and glossy magazines featuring Elton John and other western celebrities that the heroine brings home after a trip to the city. Storozheva's choice of a female protagonist is a welcome change to the male-dominated quest for the meaning of life in contemporary Russian cinema, even though in the end the best the film can offer is a stereotypical image of the heroine as a (Holy) Mother, which becomes especially evident when Natal'ia adopts an orphaned child and declines the advances of the entrepreneurial truck driver Sergei. The heroine's association with the image on the icon “Softening of Angry Hearts” further conflates her image with that of Mother Russia, a slumbering land with a great potential where emotional indifference, hard-heartedness, and preoccupation with the material world (portrayed as patriarchal attributes) that must give way to feminine values of Christian compassion, spiritual reflection, and the perception of the unique nature of each individual life.

It was above all the film's detachment from everyday Russian reality and its intimate scale (with the theatrical actress Kseniia Kutepova of Petr Fomenko's Workshop staging an almost one-woman show) that made some critics question the validity of the Best Film award that Traveling with Pets received at the 29th Moscow International Film Festival last summer. Along with accusations of nepotism, since Storozheva's film became the third Russian laureate at MIFF within the last four years, the critics mentioned the film's “artlessly diminutive cast” and “watercolor-like” nature, features that don't allow it to rise to the level of top-quality international festivals that call for more “intellectually ambitious” films ”infused with [more] powerful directorial energy” (“Moskovskii kinofestival'”).

Festival-related criticism aside, Traveling with Pets is a beautifully shot and conceptually tight film that benefits greatly from the subtle performance by the lead actress, as well as from Oleg Lukichev's translucent cinematography and Il'ia Shipilov's dreamlike music that simultaneously intimates the protagonist's existential insecurity and her instinctual belief in a vague promise of fulfilled expectations. Storozheva skillfully uses every expressive means at her disposal to give the viewer access to her protagonist's personal world, making Natal'ia's inner journey visually tangible through the film's elaborate mise-en-scène. In doing so, the director makes a particularly original use of train and railroad imagery, costumes, and supporting characters.

The film's opening immerses the viewer in the heroine's chronotope, with its sense of stagnant time, soulless surroundings, and oppressive relationships. Freight and passenger trains speed through the dormant winter landscape and past the god-forsaken railway post, slowing down only occasionally to pick up fresh milk that Natal'ia diligently extracts from her cow named Shalava (Whore). The trackman's shack overflows with various dairy products stored everywhere in glass jars and suspended from the ceiling, some of them gone visibly bad. The expression ”cash cow” (doinaia korova) takes on its literal meaning when the heroine uses a milk canister as a sort of purse for carrying the money received from selling Shalava's milk. In a poignant comment on the heroine's own servitude, the viewer sees her husband make a profitable business out of processing and selling the cow's nurturing fluids in an undertaking that is not only physically exploitative but also emotionally degrading.

In direct contrast to Zhanabek Zhetiruov's film Notes of a Trackman (Zapiski putevogo obkhodchika, 2006) that conceives of the Kazakh railways as the country's vital blood vessels lovingly maintained by the film's aging protagonist, Traveling with Pets depicts the “iron road” as limiting and isolating, rather than liberating and integrative. In Soviet mythology trains played the role of symbolic locomotives of social and industrial progress on a path to a bright communist future. As man-made symbols of materialist ideology, in the late Soviet and post-Soviet era trains were frequently portrayed as rusted out and defunct giants parked at terminated tracks. In Vasilii Pichul's seminal Little Vera (Malen'kaia Vera, 1987), for example, the deafening screeching of old, slow-moving trains heard throughout the film—along with repeated shots of poster images of depot-bound trains and real-life scrap yards filled with derelict engines—announced the approaching demise of Soviet ideology. Despite the contrast they provide to the images of Russian countryside, the perfectly functioning trains in Traveling with Pets are not so much symbols of encroaching modernity, as conveyors of the new, capitalist materialism that has replaced Soviet ideology in contemporary Russia. Powerful locomotives transport massive shipments of capitalist-era commodities as well as engaging in petty business deals, such as buying milk from Natal'ia's husband. When he dies of a heart attack early in the film (thus introducing the theme of the “angry heart”) next to a passing train, the wind strips banknotes from his clenched hand.

In addition to depicting trains as mechanical carriers of physical matter rather than organic vehicles of social networking and spiritual transport, Storozheva uses the symbolism of the heroine's railway trips to delineate the progression of her inner journey. At the beginning of the film, Natal'ia's world is limited to the space accessible to her via railway tracks. Only gradually does the heroine realize that this predetermined path circumscribes the possibilities that have opened up to her with her husband's death. When she takes her husband's body to a hospital in a railway cart, she needs to transfer to a truck, to a more flexible form of transportation that enables her to reach her destination. After a shopping spree in the city, Natal'ia, dressed in a newly purchased wedding dress, seems to have finally found her freedom in a kinetically liberating cart ride. The visual dynamism of the scene, however, fails to translate into the inner energy necessary to thrust the heroine off the beaten track and out of her emotional stupor. In a later scene, Natal'ia makes another attempt at finding her path by getting on a train that miraculously stops for her at her remote shack. She dons a provocative red suit—another of her recent acquisitions—and mingles with the passengers in front of the train before being persuaded to join two dubious men on their journey. When the train starts, the conductor duly sends the passengers into their little compartments but Natal'ia, without an appointed niche, is left alone. The heroine is touched by the devotion of her mutt Koshchei (Ogre), who follows her by running after the moving train, and decides to jump off and seek an altogether different means of transport to her dream.

The heroine's final trip along the railway tracks, this time on foot, takes place during her last conversation with Sergei. His plan of turning Natal'ia's land into a camping ground for city folk on which she will clean and cook for the guests and milk a cow for them, sounds far too familiar to the heroine. She asks Sergei to leave and never come back, thus cutting short their walk on the tracks. Shortly after this episode, Natal'ia collects her pets and sets off on a boat trip to her native orphanage. The river the heroine comfortably navigates in her small boat provides a free-flowing alternative to the rigid railway tracks. Returning to the place of her origin helps Natal'ia find the meaningful relationship she was looking for: an introverted little boy with brilliantly red hair that matches the heroine's own. The river then carries her new family on—through peaceful, picturesque streams with the Church she visited earlier nestled amid weeping willows and on to the wider horizons opening up to the travelers as the river flows into a boundless body of water merging with the sky. Close-ups of Natal'ia's face in this sequence glow with the inner light and serenity that was conspicuously absent at the film's opening, and the boat peacefully glides away from the viewer into nature's brilliant radiance.

Costuming plays an important part in explicating the protagonist's inner changes that accompany her search for her own, “special” (osobyi) size. Casting off her oversized and sexless working clothes, Natal'ia builds an extensive collection of mass-produced, fashionable outfits that serve as external indicators of her emotional forays into possible life scenarios. The heroine's dream of a pure romantic relationship, signaled by her donning of a wedding dress, eludes her as Sergei pushes the lacy skirts away to take advantage of her in a steamy bathhouse. Her next attempt at entering a relationship ends in an equally disappointing fashion, when, dressed in the seductive red suit, she gets on a train with the superficial city folk. After both the virgin and the whore scenarios fail, the heroine tries on a “Mother of God Icon” dress when Sergei comes to visit her with his five-year-old daughter. Natal'ia's gaudy golden outfit, reminiscent of lavish oklad covers for Russian icons of the Madonna, clashes with the warm maternal feeling she experiences toward the child, and the next morning we see Natal'ia back in her more humble clothing. When she sets out on the boat trip, the heroine puts on a modest turquoise blouse and a transparent light blue scarf woven through with delicate golden threads (the “gold and azure” used in Russian symbolist poetry to express the divine essence), an outfit that suggests the heroine's arrival at a more subtle understanding of spirituality and the meaning of life.

Natal'ia's interactions with people and animals are crucial in shaping her understanding of genuine relationships, with beasts easily beating men in a contest for the heroine's thawing heart. Despite the convincing performance by the irresistible Dmitrii Diuzhev, the charismatic truck-driver Sergei cannot match the mutt Koshchei's sincere and utter devotion to Natal'ia, nor is he ready to provide the heroine with the nourishment and companionship she receives from her goat Bertha. [1] His help around the house notwithstanding, all Sergei can offer Natal'ia in the end is the same patriarchal scenario that she endured under her late husband. While the most socially accomplished and financially independent (and therefore highly incredible) heroines of Soviet cinema, such as Katerina in Moscow Doesn't Believe in Tears (Moskva slezam ne verit; dir. Vladimir Men'shov, 1979), felt incomplete without such a family patriarch, Storozheva's heroine—who is equally free from economic and social constraints due to the conventions of the parable genre—consciously chooses a life without Sergei in it. This is a sad comment on the dynamics of gender relations in contemporary Russia, where women often cannot realize their full potential due to the cultural expectations of their subservience to men. Ironically, the suggestion to have Natal'ia decline Sergei's proposition came from a male member of Storozheva's production team. As the filmmaker explained in an interview,

The scriptwriter [Arkadii Krasil'shchikov] and I had different ideas about the film. He is older than me, and maybe for that reason I felt like making a tilt in the direction of a love story. But then I understood that he was right: the most important thing is the awakening of [the heroine's] individuality, freedom; everything else is contingent upon that. Everybody wants Natal'ia to stay with Sergei, but she chooses her inner freedom instead. (Storozheva)

While most progressive western viewers would not want Natal'ia to stay with Sergei, they probably would like to see this rare example of female agency in contemporary Russian cinema more grounded in reality. As it is, the image of the heroine becomes too idealized and is set too high on a pedestal to be of helpful guidance for contemporary Russian women hoping to achieve greater equality in their society.

The film's ending may strike the viewer as overly idealized in more ways than one. There is a confusing inconsistency in the film's depiction of the orphanage and its role in the heroine's life. On the one hand, this state-run institution is another example of the capitalist marketplace where children are sold to be slaves. As the heroine confides to Sergei, she made three attempts at escaping from the place—first by train, then by foot, and, finally, by boat. All three attempts were unsuccessful, although the boat took the fugitives the farthest distance from their hated abode. On the other hand, in the end of the film, Natal'ia returns to the orphanage (by boat!) as to a cherished place of origin, a special kind of a big family where she is told that she has a “special size.” Unlike the trackman's shack, the orphanage is located on a riverbank and is built with wooden boards and logs melding nicely into its natural surroundings. The logic would suggest that only after experiencing an even worse oppression by her husband does the heroine realize the blissfulness of her prior existence at the orphanage, but it is obviously not the point the film tries to make.

Perhaps what Traveling with Pets does attempt to say is that Natal'ia comes back to the place of her childhood in order to change the pattern of treating children as commodity. As opposed to buying herself a domestic helper, the heroine welcomes her adoptive son Grigorii into a loving family as a full-fledged member. Equally significant in this respect may be the fact that the management of the orphanage has changed since Natal'ia's last stay there (the old directress died a few years ago), and one of the former orphans, Gleb, an accomplished basketball player and coach, has forfeited his successful sports career by retuning to his home to play the role of a caring father-figure to the children.[2] In fact, the gentle Gleb and the introverted Grigorii provide a welcome alternative to the entrepreneurial and controlling Sergei. Both characters engage in traditionally female domestic tasks: Gleb rears children, teaching them the fair rules of the game, and Grigorii helps prepare food for the orphanage's big family. The film's ultimate message may thus be: if the meek are to inherit the earth, they must look after each other and take personal responsibility for their mutual destinies.

Elena Monastireva-Ansdell
Bowdoin College

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Notes

1] Notably, the film differentiates between the cow with an offensive name Shalava, and the goat with a human name. While Natal'ia's husband exploited the cow for financial profit, Natal'ia treats Bertha as an old friend (she reminds her of the goats they had at the orphanage, one of whom was also named Bertha). The little milk that Bertha provides is enough to feed the family, and none of it goes for sale. In the end, Natal'ia leaves Bertha at the orphanage, where the goat will provide nourishment for a new generation of orphans.

2] In light of the film's overt acknowledgement of the importance of the heroine's name, it may be appropriate to look into the symbolism of other characters' names as well. Sergei means “high standing, highly esteemed” in Latin; Gleb comes from Scandinavian for “gods' favorite” and has additional connotations of humility and meekness connected to St. Gleb, an 11 th century Russian prince who chose violent death over armed resistance to his power-hungry brother; Grigorii means “alert, not sleeping” which complements the theme of spiritual awakening that is central to the film.


Works Cited

"Moskovskii kinofestival': Opiat' pobedili svoi." Trud 115 (3 July 2007).

Storozheva, Vera (interviewed by Gennadii Belostotskii). “Chelovek ne znaet, kto on.” Kultura 25 (5-11 July 2007).


Traveling with Pets, Russia, 2007
Color, 96 minutes
Director: Vera Storozheva
Scriptwriter: Arkadii Krasil'shchikov
Cinematography: Oleg Lukichev
Music: Il'ia Shipilov
Art Director: Igor' Kotsarev
Cast: Kseniia Kutepova, Dmitrii Diuzhev
Producer: Sabina Eremeeva, Igor' Tolstunov
Production: Studio “Slon,” PROFIT Film Co., with support from the Federal Agency for Culture and Cinema

Vera Storozheva: Traveling with Pets (Puteshestvie s domashnimi zhivotnymi, 2007)

reviewed by Elena Monastireva-Ansdell© 2008

Updated: 09 Jan 08