Aleksandr Kasatkin: Listening to Silence (Slushaia tishinu, 2007)

reviewed by Alissa Timoshkina© 2008

Listening to Silence is a debut film from a graduate of the State Institute for Filmmaking (VGIK), Aleksandr Kasatkin, which tells the story of a young aspiring composer, Nastia, who travels to Moscow in hope of a better life. In the capital, however, she encounters all sorts of harsh realities that shatter her innocent illusions and shake her belief system. She ends up working as a cleaning woman and falls in love with her wealthy employer. Unfortunately, love, as promised, fails to conquer all. People are alienated, bitter, and selfish; wives commission murders of their husbands; poor children continue to die, while the rich dine in extravagant restaurants... It is quite apparent that the narrative is modeled on some very well known—if not clichéd—contemporary conventions, thus making the viewer realize that this old record has been played somewhere before.

Nevertheless, the evocative title of the film leaves some hope for a more original variation on an all too familiar theme. Listening to Silence is an oxymoron that was not chosen simply for the sake of a catchy title, for the motifs of incommensurability constantly reverberate in the film: innocence and immorality, culture and consumerism, city and province, Russia and post-Soviet space, present and past, and, of course, man and woman. The implication of good and evil is quite apparent in this rather gender specific sets of oppositions.

The film opens with a shot of a black foreign car speeding along some forsaken highway. It is abruptly replaced by a serene image of a railway station at some magic hour of the morning in some clearly identifiable Asiatic post-Soviet space. A small window opens to reveal a beautiful landscape, which then turns out to be a point of view shot of the protagonist. Thus, in an immaculately composed frame-within- a frame shot, the film encapsulates the entire pre-history of our heroine: a young girl, who has been trapped in a distant rural existence, is about to uncover new horizons. In the next scene she closes the windows of her little hut, blocking off the retreat path to her old life, and sets off on a journey through a barren, burnt-out landscape towards the promised land of all provincials—the great and mighty Russian capital.

As soon as the film cuts to a close up of an insolent male face, easily identifiable as a character based on typage, the viewer realizes that the narrative is destined to turn into a somewhat banal Cinderella story, where Prince Charming is replaced by, some may argue, his modern day equivalent—the notorious, yet still ever so alluring Oligarch. Thus, the carriage turns into a pumpkin before viewers have had a chance to enjoy the ride.

Kasatkin evidently aimed to strike some serious social chords in the film in order to reveal the painful truth about the contemporary Russian capital, which acts as a clear metaphor of our modern day existence. He does this through several narrative threads that are at first dissociated, but that gradually get tangled up into one miserable, nostalgic, and somewhat unconvincing narrative.

Given the film's title, it is only logical that one of its themes should be related to music. Nastia's burning passion for art seems to be the driving force of the narrative; it is her unrealized talent—not the desire to find a rich husband—that brings her to Moscow, for she still believes that the capital holds a promise of cultural and spiritual fulfillment. However, the girl, quite predictably, runs into the concrete wall of harsh contemporary reality, which is revealed during her music college entrance examination. The committee's board, despite its seemingly cultured appearance, bases its judgment not on her unique musical gift, but rather on her clearly provincial physical appearance, and rejects her application. Thus, poor Nastia is not only judged by, but also rejected because of her clothes. The old values of charity, however, remain intact in the character of good and, alas, old Iia Savvina, who is willing to defend the girl in front of her money-hungry colleagues. Nevertheless, the question of money, like donkey ears, simply must come to the fore of the storyline. Savvina's esteemed professor of music pronounces a phrase that disillusions the innocent and old-fashioned heroine: “If you don't have money, start looking for a rich boy friend.” Such a narrative twist has little effect on the viewer, for it is merely a repetition of a slightly overused fact: contemporary society, in particular in Moscow, has failed to uphold the high moral values of the past and has found itself in a state of total spiritual exhaustion.

Following the thematic thread of devalued virtues of the past (and it is quite tempting to insert the adjective “Soviet” into the equation) is another narrative line that focuses on the character of Nastia's elder sister, Alina, a single mother who was once a distinguished sportswoman. Whereas her personal life seems rather irrelevant to the central plot of the film, her former professional career in shooting sports turns out to be crucial to the entire narrative. Once again the film glances nostalgically into the past, where sports used to constitute a great deal of Russia's national pride. Moscow, however, is no longer the capital of famous music competitions and Olympic Games, and the great journey to the center of Russia, once glorified in Soviet films, bares neither ideological nor cultural significance.

The film accentuates this disappointing truth in portraying how Nastia and Alina end up turning their once cherished talents against the brutal capital, represented by the character of Dmitrii, the Oligarch. The elder sister is manipulated by Dmitrii's ex-wife into applying her professional skill quite directly; she shoots the unfaithful, heartless man for money. Nastia rather unintentionally seduces him with her unearthly musical gift, gaining access to his bed, which in the contemporary metropolitan world signifies gaining access to his wallet. No matter what the sisters' means are, the end is the same—material profit. Nevertheless, one should not judge the heroines too quickly, for they indeed have a truly noble cause, which somewhat justifies their not so noble acts.

This brings us to the most dramatic and serious social chord struck by the director in the film. The storyline of Alina's gravely ill son is indeed a moving one, not only because it is a very obvious narrative device for emotional manipulation, but also because the children's performances are the most convincing of all. The film could not have painted a more pessimistic picture of the future: for what can we aspire if the young, poor, and, most likely, single women (symbolizing the present) give birth to fatally ill children, and money is their only salvation. Nastia, the modern day Cinderella, however, manages to resolve this no-win situation: realizing that it is neither culture nor riches, but an act of pure self-sacrifice that can save the future, she donates a kidney to her ill nephew and leaves sin city for good.

Thus, the dystopian penultimate part of the film is suddenly followed by an unconvincing and an unfittingly positive ending. The little boy is saved and his “criminal” single mother is pardoned by the Oligarch. Moreover, she ends up with a man who oddly enough happens to be a former “foot-soldier” of that very same Oligarch. And yet, this seemingly virtuous cycle is transformed into yet another vicious circle. The notion of a closed circuit is rather conventionally evoked through editing, as the very same sequence of a black car speeding along a highway is repeated at the finale of the film. Despite the fact that there is light at the end of the tunnel (this figure of speech is quite literally realized in the mise en scène), the open ending of the film lapses into complete ambiguity. Nastia has returned to her little hut and one could naively assume that Dmitrii is on his way to join her.

So what is the moral of this contemporary fairy tale? Is Kasatkin suggesting that our society has no choice but to escape the capital; hence to escape the reality of the present day? Do we really need to give into the overwhelming mass phenomenon of Soviet nostalgia and dwell on our morally and ideologically pure past?

Despite the artistic merits evident in the film's beautifully composed, lit, and scored scenes, the somewhat dated social message fails to produce the intended impact on the viewer.

After all, Russian audiences have already had the misfortune of seeing Konchalovskii's Gloss (Glianets, 2007) and have heard of the so-called writer Oksana Robski; we all have seen the numerous TV documentaries on “how to marry” and then “how to divorce” an oligarch. Kasatkin is indeed right to suggest that our society has been and still is listening to silence, thereby driving itself to a state of spiritual and moral exhaustion. Unfortunately, his own film does little to improve this rather alarming situation.

Alissa Timoshkina
Russian Cultural Foundation “Academia Rossica,” London

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Listening to Silence, Russia, 2007
Color, 100 minutes
Director: Aleksandr Kasatkin
Screenplay: Natal'ia Nazarova
Cinematography: Andrei Naidenov
Art Director: Tat'iana Dervitsa
Composer: Vladimir Saiko
Cast: Zhanna Vorob'eva, Dmitrii Mar'ianov, Alina Sergeeva, Mariia Zvonareva, Iia Savvina, Viktor Rakov, Sergei Iushkevich
Producer: Sergei Danielian, Ruven Dishdishian, Aram Movsesian, Iurii Moroz, Aleksei Sidorov
Production: Central Partnership, with support from the Federal Agency for Culture and Cinema

Aleksandr Kasatkin: Listening to Silence (Slushaia tishinu, 2007)

reviewed by Alissa Timoshkina© 2008

Updated: 13 Jul 08