Issue 27 (2010)
Larisa Sadilova: Sonny (Synok, 2009)
reviewed by Jasmijn Van Gorp © 2010
In 2003 we witnessed a series of highly acclaimed Russian films exploring father-son relationships. The sons in Zviagintsev’s The Return (Vozvrashchenie) are desparately looking for any affection from their father, to no avail. In Khlebnikov and Popogrebskii’s Koktebel, father and son leave town for the provinces, trying to build a new life after the mother ’s death. On the road, they get to know each other better. In the third film, Sokurov’s Father and Son (Otets i syn), an absent mother leads to overly affective, quasi-homo erotic behavior on the part of the father towards his adolescent son. While Sadilova’s new film Sonny also tackles a dysfunctional father-son relationship, it ultimately takes a different stance. While the 2003 films are about the struggle with an authoritative father, Sonny deals primarily with an absent mother.
The story of Sonny is not told chronologically. Flashbacks illustrate what is being narrated in the diegetic story, accompanied by an instrumental music score. Daringly, the major flashbacks, even key scenes, are edited in between the closing credits. Those scenes provide narrative elements which make the plot coherent. Whereas the narrative structure of the film is— I would say rather unnecessary —complicated, the plot is very simple. Like Sadilova’s earlier films With Love, Lilly (S liuboviu, Lilia, 2003) and Nothing Personal (Nichego lichnogo, 2007), Sonny tells a story about loneliness. Abandoned by his wife when his son was only six months old, Igor Pavlovich Smirnov has to be both father and mother to 17-year-old Andrei, a task which supersedes the abilities of the man. He effaces himself and gives everything he has to his son. The father’s overprotective attitude is counterproductive: Andrei starts to rebel against his father. The apathy of Andrei towards his father reaches its climax when Andrei decides to take his father’s car and leave town, together with a hitchhiker named Rita. When their car breaks down, they drive off in an abandoned jeep which is parked on a nearby verge. However, the car belongs to a rich businessman who is found dead in the town’s river. As the jeep’s driver, Andrei is accused of the murder. Rita hears the wanted notice on the radio and, at the first light of day, continues her journey, leaving Andrei behind in the jeep. Andrei is caught by the police and ends up in jail. A few days later, it turns out that Andrei was falsely accused and he is released.
At surface level, the film tells the story of a troubled child-parent relationship, quite familiar to parents with children in puberty . Andrei rejects every kind of affection from his father. He cold-shoulders him and answers his phone calls and questions with an indifferent “yes ” or “no. ” Andrei also cheats his dad by buying beer instead of books for school, but still, he is a good kid who just wants to break free, to explore the world. All in all, the youngsters are well-behaved. They drink beer and vodka, but they don’t use drugs, or steal. When borrowing the jeep, it is shown as an act of innocence rather than misbehavior, as is also noted by Petrova (2009). It is equally difficult to blame Igor for his over-protectiveness. The enormous melancholy of the lonely, gentle father makes the audience feel sorry for him, as do Russian critics, the director, and even the actors (see press conference, Kopcheskaia 2009). The famous actor Victor Sukhorukov, who is usually cast in the role of bad guy or bandit, plays Igor with a shining silence. As noted by Johnson (2006), Sadilova is a master in casting. That is once again proven in this film, also with regards to the many non-professional actors. Sadilova used the real town of Trubchevsk (close to her hometown Briansk) as the setting for the film, and the residents as actors. Andrei is played by a real-life student , Oleg Frolenkov, who states that he “just played himself ” (Kopcheskaia 2009). The other students, too, are played by real students of the Technical College. The same goes for the teachers. The documentary nature of the film is enhanced by the “television report ” episodes in which the journalist interviews the students. The girls and boys look uncomfortably straight into the camera (the reporter’s photo camera), testifying as if they were on the news.
Equally important, Sadilova continues the peeping-tom element of Nothing Personal by making a film about a Kafkaesque surveillance, denouncing the increasing popularity of gossip in the global society. Despite Igor’s good intentions, he keeps his son in a social stranglehold. He monitors his son all day long, whether to ask him where he has been or to switch of his disc-man when he is asleep. Although his son is already a teenager, he brings him to school and picks him up afterwards. For his part, Igor is being watched to a much greater extent by the police, journalists, neighbors and his lawyer. The police interrogate Igor in the early morning, asking questions as “Were you asleep? We called you!” unambiguously reminiscent of NKVD practices in Stalin’s time. When the police arrive at Igor’s house, curtains are pushed away and “there has been a murder in this house ” is being whispered, but nobody actually dares to ask Igor what happened. The weakness and apathy of the villagers is stressed by the behavior of the saleswoman who sells a kite to Rita. Seconds later, she witnesses the fast- driving car hitting Rita. Nevertheless, she runs away from the police instead of testifying against the car driver. The journalists, too, intrude into the father’s life: they take uninvited pictures of him, ask him personal questions and follow him around. Their behavior is irritating , they talk fast, smiling constantly. Finally, even the lawyer interferes in Igor’s private life. She asks him whether or not he is often visited by women. Implausibly, she considers the absence of women in Andrei’s life as a possible reason for Andrei to kill the businessman.
While in the film’s plot women are equally guilty of the use of surveillance techniques, Sadilova seems to agree with the lawyer on a deeper level. That is, the problematic father-son relationship in Sonny is explained by the absence of a mother. It seems a womanless household is doomed to fail. The clumsiness of father and son is contrasted with strong women. Turning the traditional man-woman division upside down, it is the lawyer, played by Evgeniia Simonova, who brings Igor a bunch of flowers. In the same vein, it is Rita, not the boys, who prefers vodka to beer, who dares to leave her parents, who drives away with someone else’s car and who decides to leave Andrei behind after a one-night love affair. Rita even states: “It is better to die than to stay in one place waiting for something to happen ”. The women are the driving forces in the film.
Sadilova’s films hold a middle position between art- house and commercial films, making them difficult to interpret (Stojanova 2008). The theme of the lonely man, the strength of women, the minimalistic acting, the use of non-professional actors and the total lack of any action scenes make Sonny a true auteur film. However, in contrast to other auteur filmmakers (e.g. the Dardenne brothers in The Son or Kravchuk in The Italian), Sadilova does not make use of beautiful cinematography. Therefore, the town does not trigger any feelings. It is neither ugly nor beautiful, but just sunny, clean, with no dirt or scum. Rita stresses Trubchevsk’s ordinariness, dullness and plainness by calling it “a typical Russian town.” She is looking for the most beautiful city of Russia, and this is definitely not Trubchevsk. The film is the height of ordinary, depicting the normality and even banality of the characters, their lives and their town. The ordinary is stressed by the uncomfortable distance of the camera and the lack of expressive emotions between the characters. When Igor is informed about Andrei being released, he does not say anything. When the journalists are trying to upset Andrei’s best friend Gosha by suggesting Andrei betrayed him, he remains stoic. While it is a familiar story about ordinary people, it is told from a distance with lack of emotions, aggression, and joy. Paradoxically, therefore, the absence of a mother figure, of motherly love or female emotions (to put it stereotypically), is intriguingly present in the film. Significantly, Igor calls his son “Andrei,” not Andriusha or Andriushenka, which is also noticed by the journalists in the film. At the same time, the father calls Andrei “Sonny.” The field of tension between the distant “Andrei ” and the familiar synok perfectly captures the alienation in this film.
Jasmijn Van Gorp
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Johnson, Vida (2006), “Larisa Sadilova: Babysitter Required”, KinoKultura 11.
Kopcheskaia, Aleksandra (2009), “Novosti Kino: Press-konferentsiia fil’ma Synok Kinotavr 2009,” rudata.ru, 12 June.
Petrova, Vassa (2009) “Synok—vse problemy v zhenshchinakh,” NashFilm.ru
Stojanova, Christina (2008), “Larisa Sadilova: Nothing Personal” KinoKultura 19
Sonny, Russia, 2009
Color, 96 minutes
Director: Larisa Sadilova
Script: Larisa Sadilova
Cinematography: Dmitri Mishin
Cast: Viktor Sukhorukov, Oleg Frolenkov, Oleg Bokhan, Evgeniia Simonova, Kseniia Surkova, Iurii Kiselev, Aleksandr Isaev
Producer: Rustem Akhadov
Production Company: Arsi Film Production
Larisa Sadilova: Sonny (Synok, 2009)
reviewed by Jasmijn Van Gorp © 2010