Issue 24 (2009)

Katia Shagalova: Once Upon a Time In the Provinces (Odnazhdy v provintsii, 2008)

reviewed by Gerald McCausland © 2009

once in provincesKatia Shagalova’s second feature film, Once Upon a Time In the Provinces, was one of the highlights of Russian cinema in 2008. Filmed in the city of Podol'sk outside Moscow, it provides a mostly realistic portrait of Russian life that seldom reaches the big screen. It features actors both new and established, and the level of their performances is overall quite high. The film was awarded the International Federation of Film Critics (FIPRESCI) prize at the 2008 Moscow International Film Festival, although it was passed over by the festival jury.  Its reception has not been without scandal due to the perception among some Russian critics that it gives a too negative portrayal of the Russian “provinces.” Shagalova both directed and wrote the screenplay for the film, and the work that has resulted clearly carries a distinct authorial message. This review, therefore, will be oriented around that traditional Russian approach to any work of art: What is the author trying to teach us?

once in provincesThe story revolves around a rather complex cast of characters. The first part of the film seems organized around the fraught relationship between two sisters. Nastia (Iuliia Peresil'd) is a young but apparently already washed up television actress, who has come to the provincial town to seek refuge with her sister, Vera (El'vira Bolgova), who is married to and regularly abused by her war veteran husband, Kolia (Aleksandr Golubev). We quickly come to realize that all three of these individuals are profoundly damaged: Nastia is suffering not only from the collapse of her acting career, but more deeply from the guilt she feels for her sister’s banishment from the family and for her brother-in-law’s conscription and deployment to a war zone. Kolia is quite literally damaged from a brain injury suffered during military service; he is consumed with justifiable hatred for Nastia and otherwise prone to violent outbursts of physical violence. Vera’s masochistic love for her husband grows only stronger the more that he batters and torments her. Nastia’s intermittent and clumsy attempts to intervene in her sister’s sad life do nothing but raise the tension in the household.

once in provincesKolia’s real family consists of his three buddies with whom he served in Chechnya. It is with each other that they choose to spend most of their time, whether drinking themselves into oblivion, refurbishing stolen vehicles, or doing battle with racist skinhead gangs. Their quasi-brotherhood transcends all other relationships in the film, most particularly romantic liaisons. For the sake of this friendship, Kolia is even willing to tolerate a budding romance between one of his buddies and the hated Nastia. This brotherhood is part of a general opposition between romantic and familial bonds in the film, whereby bonds of blood (whether biological or metaphorical) are more highly valued and more fiercely defended than bonds of erotic attraction. While romantic couplings take place easily and frequently, forming a web of relationships that crisscross the entire cast of characters and, presumably, the entire town, familial bonds are strong and constant, even if almost never emotionally satisfying. When Kolia confesses to his wife that she has become more like a sister to him, he considers this confession to be a peace offering. Vera’s hysterical reaction to this gesture makes clear beyond any doubt that, in the social milieu of this film, her unconditional subservience to the needs of her husband is the most destructive pathology of all.

once in provincesBut almost every relationship in this story proves ultimately to be a dysfunctional one. Marriages are loveless and bring no happiness. Love is genuine, but likewise leads to no good end. What appears to be a life-affirming devotion to Nastia on the part of the handsome and likable Misha (Leonid Bichevin), who is usually called Che as a nod to his Cuban father, turns out to be a manifestation of his obsession with his own mother. His desire for Nastia springs from the chance he sees to undo his failure to protect his mother from the hatred that she endured as an unmarried mother of a biracial child. Che’s love for Nastia, both touching and pathological, is emblematic for a pattern that repeats itself with most of the other characters. Kolia and his friends fight racial bigotry through violent means. Kolia’s friend Kim (Aidys Shoigu) silently loves Kolia’s wife from a distance, but he watches just as silently how this woman he adores is beaten and abused. Nastia’s love for her sister is genuine, but her attempts to help Vera always do more harm than good. Time and again, we see that the most virtuous and life-affirming of human impulses—love, loyalty, devotion, tolerance—bring not happiness, but more misery.

By making her characters likable and attractive not only physically but also morally, the director avoids one of the chief characteristics of perestroika-era chernukha: an all-encompassing sense of decay and hopelessness that permeates both society and environment. Shagalova rescues the film from complete hopelessness by highlighting two otherwise secondary characters in the film. Lena (Liubov' Tolkalina), the local police chief, certainly has her flaws: she is at best moderately competent at her job, and she has raised a disastrously delinquent daughter. Nevertheless, she is the only character in the film who seems to live responsibly, to provide for her family, and to maintain a sense of personal dignity. Her dilletantish dabbling in feng shui and poetry would be comical in another context, but here she appears as perhaps the town’s only fully developed human individual. She gives much more sensible advice to Vera than Nastia is able to give, and she provides Kolia with the love that he needs but which he can no longer tolerate from his clinging wife.

once in provincesIf Lena serves as a model individual, Iasir and his wife (Sakhat Dursunov and Viktoriia Poltorak), recent immigrants from the Caucasus, serve as the model couple. Throughout the film, Shagalova shows but never really investigates the oft ignored reality of Russia as a multi-ethnic society. The town is populated by all kinds of non-Russians, many of them clearly recent migrants to the country. Rather than develop this as a thematic problem in the film, Shagalova is more interested in spotlighting the relationship between Iasir and his wife, not only to provide a contrast to the strife and discord among the rest of the population, but also to provide a point of view that looks at society from outside. Their dialogue is endearing in its simplicity and profound in its quiet wisdom.

Ultimately, Shagalova’s depiction of this society locates its suffering not in the structure of the provincial milieu, but solely in the psychology of its inhabitants. The most optimistic phrase in the film, introduced only midway through the story but thereafter repeated like a mantra, turns out to be a diagnosis of the fundamental problem. “The nightmare is over—a new life has begun.” The phrase was uttered by the boys’ commanding officer at the end of their military service, a moment that they celebrate as their collective “birthday.” The film makes clear, however, that new life, whether “my,” “your,” or “our,” (the Russian phrase leaves the pronoun ambiguous) has in fact not begun at all. By repeating this mantra to themselves, to each other, and to their loved ones, the war veterans and, by extension, almost everyone in the film, continues to live in the dead space between “then” and “now.” By convincing themselves that the nightmare is over and taking comfort in that delusion, these characters fail to begin any new life at all. This film is perhaps the most accurate depiction of the true meaning of “stagnation”: a stasis in which the very desire to live better is negated by the repression of the “nightmare” that one desperately imagines to have already left behind. It is a repression that Shagalova herself seems to repeat in the construction of the film itself. Just as the young men repress the past that continues to haunt them, the young director represses the history that Russia no longer wants to face but which might enable a more penetrating analysis of the psychological stupor of contemporary society.

The most confusing character of the film, the vagabond nicknamed Horse (Aleksei Poluian), exists in the film as a visible trace of this repression. Destitute and alone, he has been reduced to living a beggar’s existence on the edge of society. Eating out of the same bowl as his dog, he is an object of derision and pity, to the extent that he is noticed at all. At the level of the plot, it is unclear why the character is necessary at all, and his function during the film’s final minute only serves to confirm the absurdity of his existence. His role makes sense only if we interpret his presence as a barely audible echo of the town’s no longer recent past. Vera tells Nastia that he used to be a “bigshot” in town which, judging from his behavior and attitudes, we must interpret to mean that he ran the town during the Soviet period. The onetime representative of the regime that built the town has now been reduced to an abject object of ridicule whose very identity is largely forgotten, erased under the nonsensical name of “Horse.”

shagalovaThere is yet one more figure even more peripheral to the action on the screen, but who apparently was even more necessary for the director. If we pose the question “who is to blame,” from a strictly cause-and-effect point of view, for the conflict and tragedy of the film, the answer at once becomes clear and indisputable. The blame lies with a character who never appears on screen but who Shagalova apparently found necessary in order to explain an otherwise implausible scenario. What exactly is Nastia guilty of? She denounced her sister to their father, an army general, who never appears in the film but who is alluded to several times. It is this father who deployed Kolia to a war zone, who banished his one daughter from the family and who has now banished his second daughter as well. This patriarch, figure of both parental and State authority, is an ogre so full of hatred and so despotic that he would rather see his daughters perish than to allow them to defy his authority. Here is where the real puzzle of the film lies. How does the father fit into Shagalova’s overall concept? If the father is truly to blame for the suffering of his daughters, then they become more or less innocent victims of the past, victims of a repressive regime. If they are responsible for their own lives, if they are guilty for their failure to redeem their lives, then why could Shagalova not dispense with the father completely? For, if the young people in her film really are responsible for their own fates, then the device of the evil father should not have been necessary. One could hardly imagine a perestroika-era or post-Soviet Russian director relegating such a character to the invisible periphery of the action. Yet Shagalova (herself the daughter of filmmaker Aleksandr Mindadze) deems him unworthy of any real attention. She banishes him to oblivion in much the same way that the former army conscripts try to banish their own personal nightmares out of their memories. Ought we not see the spectral presence of the father as Shagalova’s inability to completely banish a theme that she would really rather not raise?

Shagalova has provided a convincing and vivid portrayal of the predicament of Russia’s youth today. It represents a significant new development, distinct from the old-style chernukha of the recent past. It remains to be seen whether her social diagnosis of her contemporaries enables or rather forecloses a way out of the morass.

Gerald McCausland
University of Pittsburgh

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Once Upon a Time In the Provinces, Russia, 2008
Color, 100 min.
Director: Katia Shagalova
Script: Katia Shagalova
Cinematography: Evgenii Privin
Set Design: Denis Bauer
Music: Aleksei Shelygin
Cast: Iuliia Peresil'd, El'vira Bolgova, Aleksandr Golubev, Nataliia Soldatova, Liubov' Tolkalina, Aidys Shoigu, Leonid Bichevin, Aleksandr Skotnikov, Sakhat Dursunov, Viktoriia Poltorak, Aleksei Poluian
Producers: Sergei Danielian, Ruben Dishdishian, Aram Movsesian, Iurii Moroz
Production: Central Partnership, Tan-Film, with financial support of the Federal Agency for Culture and Cinematography

Katia Shagalova: Once Upon a Time In the Provinces (Odnazhdy v provintsii, 2008)

reviewed by Gerald McCausland © 2009

Updated: 27 Mar 09