Issue 30 (2010)
Svetlana Proskurina: Truce (Peremirie, 2010)
reviewed by Olga Surkova © 2010
At the Crossing of Parallels
Truce is Svetlana Proskurina’s latest film, almost universally acclaimed. It received not only the main award at the largest festival of Russian cinema, Kinotavr, in June 2010, but also the prize for the Best Actor, which went to Ivan Dobronravov, nowadays a student at theatre school, who was noticed when still a child by Andrei Zviagintsev in his well-known film The Return (Vozvrashchenie, 2003).
Proskurina’s film begins with the sound of several people’s heavy breathing, a sound that emerges first from a black frame, which gradually fills with the image of a picturesque forest, from which a steadily growing group of young lads emerges, attacking us face-to-face before steadying their aggressive pace in a medium, lateral shot. With their hard-breathing mass, they immediately remind us of their presence, or existence, in our generally perturbed living space.
The general and medium shots are edited along with an extreme close-up of a section of the huge tire of a gigantic lorry; at its wheel, the trucker has fallen asleep. He is one of the possible characters from the crowd we have just seen. For the film’s further aesthetic development we should take into account that Proskurina’s films contain no accidental or superfluous frames; every detail—even of the material world—caught by the camera sends a specific semantic signal, depending on its design. Even with a cursory glance at the wheel, the carefully prepared imagery forces us to notice here the traces of tear-and-wear from the long journeys and protracted use.
The fabula, the external chain of events, seems plain. The protagonist, Egor Matveev (played by Dobronravov), one of the “simple” guys that appeared in the first frames, is the young trucker. He lives in a hostel at the regional center, lost in Russia’s wide space. He receives an assignment to go to a tiny geographical point, which is not even marked on the map. This is another important detail for the understanding of the original plot, which is situated at the intersection of the interdependence of man and space.
Egor travels to the unknown place, which is important for his self-understanding as he drives the brand-new truck with its canvas-covered trailer. This detail is important for the overall stylistics of the film, since from the very beginning of the hero’s journey along Russian roads and ways, we see this brand-new moving truck, shot from behind and positioned symmetrically in the center of the frame, with its loosely fixed canvas fluttering in the wind, as if to form wings that tremble in their anxiety to take off from our world of sins...
The core of the film emerges more and more distinctly at the intersection of two parallel planes, which are in play with each other in the hero’s consciousness right to the end, probably intentionally. In this world, presented by Proskurina in heavenly beauty, the 20-year-old Egor Matveev leads an ordinary life, actively participating in the rough and tough life in his native and accustomed environment. However, from the very beginning, the hero —secretly intended by the filmmaker—stands apart from his habitual life because of his dispassionateness view on the events in which he would normally participate naturally and casually.
The main action of the film is supplemented by various less significant events of the common life of a working guy in a Russian suburb: in each room of the hostel there is booze and passion. Egor amicably shares one of the rooms with a neighbor nicknamed Quasimodo—because of his mutilated eye—, whom he unostentatiously protects. Egor’s uncle San Sanych unexpectedly arrives from a near-by village with moonshine and sauerkraut, and asks his nephew to help him take money from the bank for the purchase of his neighbor’s car and protect him from potential robbers. He also wishes for him to get married before his departure.
Beginning the strange journey to his destination that is not marked on any map, Egor first calls on his friends, whom he has known since childhood. He also looks in on his sweetheart, whose lawful husband has for some reason returned just at the wrong time. With his mates he first goes to the sauna, then he get drunk as a lord and can hardly string words together. The first friend he meets, Genka Sobakin (played by the famous Shnur) helps him find his friends. The same Genka accompanies Egor to choose a bride from a secret spot where thy can look in on the women’s sauna, a treasured little spy-hole in the wall that enables Egor to view a naked young beauty who touches his heart. And everything will be alright, as they say nowadays, although it sounds painfully melancholic and rude within the dialogue.
The secret sexual encounter with the new beloved takes place in the paradise of a greenhouse, a place endowed with special poetry and hope for bright feelings. But agitated by her Adam, this Eve behaves rather like a whore (forgive me…). Some childhood friends unexpectedly ask Egor to help them with his truck, engaging him in the larceny of cables from high-voltage electricity transmission lines, just like the boys around the hostel suggested he should help them break into a fancy shop. It has to be said that Egor is not at all surprised by these obviously common requests for help; and a little later he joins the chase for thieves, who snatched his dear uncle’s hard-earned money on his way back; he runs after the Bashkir and Tatar neighbors. The nephew does not let his uncle down, languidly participating in the lynching willfully organized by the local militiaman. So everything turns out well, but not quite right...
Everything in Proskurina’s film seems simple in an everyday manner, like in a war that is all too habitual. Genka Sobakin philosophizes, melancholically complaining: “Here you can howl like a wolf howl! And Pugachev accomplished his deeds out of melancholy.” Here you remember the lads emerging from the forest at the beginning of the film and wonder what to expect, if everything seems so dull and unattractive to them. The air they breathe is used up, and the imagination produces no special ideas, except for pinching nonferrous metals or pilfering a shop. So, without opposing his friends, Egor Matveev simply joins them for their dumb ideas and not always harmless tricks, whilst at the same time observing them from the side and with some sense of contemplation.
Next to him, and right from the start, gradually acquiring a special meaning, the basic worldview of the film unfolds. Even before embarking on his spiritually significant journey, Egor sees in his world a special, frozen beauty that stands in contrast to everything else. Even the water that flows from the tap and is unsuitable for drinking or washing decorates the tile in a special way, through an aestheticized image of yellow lines. The unfortunate installation of the “dish” on the balcony, which ends almost in a fatal fall, is softened by a heap of sand and gives occasion to a smile. Egor’s constant kind humor brightens up the impression of the clumsy relations of the lovers from next door, while his sincere friendship saves Quasimodo’s finger that is torn off during his inept actions and sewn back on by a diligent Moscow doctor.
Treating events in their everyday sequence, Proskurina manages to present Egor’s habitual filthy and unattractive life in artistically impressive ways. She shows us the flow of life, or a dream; the events that occur are a mismatch among each other, because they develop either out of stupidity or absurdity, with a special sacral meaning only for the hero—a meaning he only gradually realizes. The wallpaper that is peeling off, or the filthy windowsills buckling under several layers of paint are captured as significant imagery through the camera of Oleg Lukichev, creating an aesthetic text of its own. The same happens when the lens of his camera rests on the tiles of the public shower room, which have turned yellow from the traces of the bad water, or the landscapes through which Egor Matveev travels that shine in an unearthly light...
The pitiful room in the hostel is a modest dwelling for two not well-groomed men; it is littered rather than equipped with furniture, and those are only the most essential objects. This room contains two more symbolical objects: a small rusty bell hangs over the table; and a long horse skull has been placed on the chest amidst other trifle. The bell concentrates our attention on something important: the protagonist rings it from time to time; the skull represents the inevitable—death. Purposefully one of workers quite unpersuasively and without moralizing reminds us of the disappearance of the Bolsheviks whereas the allegedly “nonexistent” God continues “to hang in the church in a visible place”.
Making a trip to a geographical point which is absent from maps, Egor almost becomes the accidental victim of a military maneuver which is carried out by the same “simple” children of yesterday, now called up to serve the Fatherland. The monotonous and irresponsible life that erupts for Egor at the beginning of his journey through a field of military training exercises impinges on his consciousness in the end, where it is replaced in a dream by an echo of the symbolical and impressive attributes of the huge, threatening and mechanized world. Even before the journey Egor closely examines the lines on his palm, subconsciously experiencing a presentiment of the fateful meaning of his impending journey.
Egor is a kind, somewhat trouble-free lad, somehow unexposed; he is confused over the point where good begins and evil—or indifference—ends. There is no difference for him in the readiness to help the confused Quasimodo to keep his torn-off finger, and in complying with he request of his childhood friends to steal cables which extend over endless kilometers and disappear in the open Russian space. But at the same time there is not even a shadow of moralizing or a sense of the everyday in the entire film. Ordinary life simply unfolds, according to the features of Russian mentality, independent of the filmmaker’s assessment. The real purpose of the film’s narration lies somewhere on the intersection of the everyday and the existential. Maybe one should speak about signs of everyday life in the films of Proskurina as necessary elements of life for the comprehension of the self in terms of existence?
Egor Matveev is electrocuted by the high-voltage transmission line, almost to death. But his friends decide on an original way to discharge the electrical current from his body, dipping him with his head over into a small river, where he had recently washed off the dirty scum of his pure love. Egor’s friends gradually resuscitate him and bring him back to life. This is one of the most powerful episodes of the film, composed through refined, short montage shots, as if splashes of memory are coming back. The scene is set to the remarkable and distinct rhythms of the impressive tunes of Shnur.
Before returning to the ending, we shall try to reproduce verbally that special, graphically refined picture of the natural world through which Egor Matveev travels. Even the ruins of former factories and semi-dilapidated places of human dwelling are wonderfully integrated by Lukichev into the general concept of beautiful things in a green-bluish smoky landscape, variously dotted with gentle impregnations of yellow and lilac. In the camera’s lens there is something like an external eye that singles out and inscribes Egor Matveev into this space.
But the hero feels its whiff and touch, all the more steadfastly reflecting on his destiny. A messenger of this other world is an accidental fellow traveler, a young priest with a pure, affable face. But he does not even begin to educate his coeval; instead he quite unexpectedly starts to sing in a youthful and excited manner and with a wonderful voice—Muslim Magomaev’s pop song “Beauty Queen” (Koroleva krasoty). Only when saying goodbye, he almost furtively crosses himself and goes from the road into a space that looks like a field painted by Mikhail Nesterov.
Truce—the title of film is interpreted by Proskurina quite originally: she deciphers its meaning as the “superfluity”, or excess, of the world for being comprehended by simple human perception. In turn, when closely examining every complex and fully organized frame like a sharpened view of the exacting eye of the camera, it seems to me that the truce happens in our soul when it touches on two parallel worlds. The truce arises where the greatness of cosmic space weighs on the everyday level of usual, vulgar life, crossing in the human soul thanks to a special spiritual tension.
Under the condition of such an internal tension, the filmmaker leaves the hero at the point where the charcoal hue of the foreground gleams in the distance through the light of Charm.
Translated by Birgit Beumers
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Truce, Russia, 2010,
Color, 95 mins
Director Svetlana Proskurina
Scriptwriters Dmitrii Sobolev
Director of Photography Oleg Lukichev
Production Design Dmitrii Onishchenko
Costume Design Regina Khomskaia
Composer Sergei Shnurov
Sound Vladimir Persov
Editing Sergei Ivanov
Cast: Ivan Dobronravov, Iurii Itskov, Sergei Shnurov, Aleksei Vertkov, Nadezhda Tolubeeva, Andrei Feskov
Producer Sabina Eremeeva
Production Slon, Mosfilm, with support from the Ministry of Culture of the Russian Federation
Svetlana Proskurina: Truce (Peremirie, 2010)
reviewed by Olga Surkova © 2010