Issue 31 (2011)
Sergei Osip’ian and Aleksandr Lungin: Act of Nature (Iavlenie prirody, 2010)
reviewed by Ian Garner © 2011
Act of Nature is the feature-length debut of joint directors Sergei Osip’ian and Aleksandr Lungin. Heavily informed by the filmic style of Russian cinema of the 1970s and 80s and by Tarkovskii’s oeuvre, it is the brief (clocking in at just over an hour) tale of Iurii (Gleb Podgorodinskii), a Muscovite holidaying with his wife, Alena (Kseniia Kutepova), and acquaintance, Vadim (Mikhail Palatnik), at a lakeside dacha. Weary of the influence of urbanism and the expectations of his peers—the classic superfluous man—he is immersed in and exposed to nature, and the organic Russian folk tradition in all its fullness. Ultimately, he chooses to remain in the wilderness, rejecting the twin extremes of urban dwelling and the local madman, Zhenka (Fedor Lavrov). Having come close to suicide and insanity, Iurii gives himself unto the power of nature, emerging as a figure capable not just of resurrecting his own tedious existence but also of miraculously bringing back to life a local hunter apparently struck dead by lightning.
The urban life is for Iurii characterised by the nagging of his wife and Vadim’s tedious lack of imagination. His peers cannot understand his alienation or his ennui, identifying only with success in the city: they are unable to imagine the positive connotations of the Russian wilderness. Nor do they understand the simplicity of Iurii’s donation of a bottle of vodka to Zhenka, whom they characterise as a lunatic who—when helped—will simply return time and again to take advantage of their material help. It is clear from the opening scenes that Iurii’s metropolitan existence, and the ordinariness of his summer wilderness “tourism”—as Alena explicitly describes his desire to connect with the natural while he is in nature if not one with nature—is rejected. Floating on a rowing boat in the opening scenes, it is not clear whether the black-clad protagonist is dead or asleep, and the image bears a stark resemblance to a maritime pagan funeral (indeed, the use of the Tarkovskian image of water as a catalyst for entrance into an unreal or alternative reality is restated several times here). Even in a sex scene with his wife, he is unable to face her. As a result, their lovemaking feels disjointed and awkward. Iurii ultimately comes to blows with the male representative of urban life, Vadim, and is symbolically felled: we see him prostrate, defeated, yet freed from the unwanted life of tedium by the submissive act. Iurii is on a journey to find an altogether different life; he is “dead” at the start and again “killed” by Vadim before undergoing a rebirth through his connection to nature.
If the city dweller is allegorically dead here, the natural environment is vibrantly alive. We are treated to lingering shots of verdant trees and luxuriantly blossoming fields, which, as Iurii rejects one life of urbanism and another of madness, fade away first into autumnal torpor then into a full-bodied stormy assault on the protagonist. Notes of that decay are evident throughout as Iurii in vain hunts the grayling which have disappeared from the lake: we get the sense that he is dipping into Tarkovskii’s aquatic other reality, seeking something that he cannot find, some ideal now long gone. His wife considers his hunt futile; the locals see it ending only in failure. Thus neither side associates with the solitary nature of his hunt; Iurii must experience the challenge to the status quo for himself.
However, the simple superstitions and behaviour of the isolated individuals Iurii encounters during the film as he wanders from path to path on a ceaseless hunt for something he cannot find are the key to his search. Only through experiencing the loneliness of these, his metaphorical kinsmen, does he come to understand that he is searching not for a rare catch but for a return to nature itself. He may be the tourist playing at the rural idyll at the start, but by the end, he becomes more than just the wilderness man. Iurii is the wilderness: by submitting to the elements in the folkloric expression of their character, Iurii is able to use a shotgun, the planned instrument of his own death, to resurrect the dead hunter in a pagan ritual inspired by the elements of earth, wind, fire and water. In so doing, he feels most able to retire to a simple hunter’s hut. Quite literally unrecognisable to those who had met him just a day before, he is a new man. His place is neither in the ineffective madness of Zhenka, resident in what is little more than a pile of logs, nor in the rat race promulgated by his peers and their chintzy dacha.
Thus the dead, black-clad Iurii of the opening scene is resurrected as an almost pagan messianic figure; he becomes the same wood goblin, the traditional protector of the forest, whom he has imitated in the opening scenes. In fact, he brings back to life the very hunter he has early fooled with that imitation. Following a cyclical pattern, the film inevitably apparently sways from summer to winter, calm to storm, yet in that movement, Iurii is transformed from absolute outsider, the quintessential superfluous man, into a figure who is no longer a “tourist” but at one with nature. He does not fight but accepts nature’s ebbs and flows, “closing his eyes” so as to figuratively open them (where, for instance, Vadim’s vision is actually obscured by the false perspective given by his spectacles) to the restorative powers of the elements in his experience. He shares water with a young girl obsessed by her own death—she lies prostrate, laid out as a corpse, and is visually “resurrected” by the act of drinking—and blowing the air “full of life” (notably, an act again catalysed by the simplicity of a child’s perspective) into the lungs of the dead hunter where the modern science of CPR has proved ineffective. He personifies the elements; he is, as he himself declares, an act of nature.
Act of Nature is at heart strikingly simple. Osip’ian and Lungin succeed in stripping the low-budget production to the absolute formal core: there are just a handful of cast members; the entire film is shot on a single, digital camera; Fedor Sofranov’s score is complex yet unerringly effortless. In this sense, the directors succeed in playing the limitations of the low-budget production to full effect. Certainly, the cinematography is the most arresting element of the film. The camera acts as an unmoving inhabitant of the environment—here hidden in water or grass, there nestled amongst furniture in the dacha—in effect, as an observer that is part of Iurii’s eventual unification with nature. A traditional rig with the false conceit of its full range of shots would have been altogether at odds with the hearkening minimalism of Iurii’s reponse to the pressures of modern life. The audacious simplicity of the cinematography was duly rewarded with a prize at Kinotavr in 2010. Likewise, Sofranov’s score is stripped to the bone, playing the role of a low-key dramatic counterpart to Iurii as a string quartet battles first with plaintive folk melody tinged with an almost imperceptible dissonance, then descends into a full-bodied atonal restatement of the same folk motifs.
In the final analysis, the film is in at least one respect seriously compromised. We are asked to imagine Iurii’s ennui by allusions to classic Russian and Soviet film (the directors explicitly state that their chief inspiration was Roman Balayan’s Dream Flights (Polety vo sne i naiavu, see Gutnikova). However, one is never fully convinced of the reasons behind this alienation: Alena and Vadim may be petit bourgeois gossips, but there is nothing in Iurii’s life bar the ease of his existence to make him quite so at odds with every part of his existence. We know next to nothing of his life in the city; the only exposure we have to it is through the gentle and, frankly, forgivable, concerns of his wife. This may be the classic Russian question of the superfluous man—admittedly here garnished with the novel response of absolute submission to nature—but we never understand why it is posed now. With socialism long gone, with apparently total freedom, why is Iurii so disengaged? Certainly, he is tied to his laptop and his wife nags, but the negative connotations of his urban existence are merely suggested, rather than stated.
In this sense, Osip’ian and Lungin add little to this classic Russian theme: this is a film not just rooted, but stuck, in the past. The volume of filmic quotation from the directors’ idols and even the low, grainy quality of the footage, suggest that this is a film made thirty years ago. Indeed, so full of imagery—Biblical, Russian folkloric, natural—is the picture that one can barely begin to discuss it here, let alone comprehend it as a viewer. Unfortunately, as a result, the delivery is frequently overly blunt. To be kind, one might suggest that the directors’ attempt to reiterate the age-old question of the superfluous man in a modern context requires reference to the past, but the only nod to the present is Iurii’s laptop. Are we to assume that the directors mean to suggest that this character is entirely outdated? Nothing in the denouement supports that idea: Iurii becomes through his oneness with nature not an ironic throwback to a bygone era, but an omnipotent, unreal being. Rather, brave though the treatment of such a classic and well-explored question is by these novice directors, one believes that they are in thrall to, and yet to reach beyond the shadow of, a cinema that belongs in the past. Deficient in context the finished product may be, but the directors’ technical and cinematic aptitude shines through in the tender composition of each shot and the audacity of two newcomers in treating such a grand theme. One eagerly awaits their follow-up.
University of Toronto
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Gutnikova, Evgeniia, “Novosti kino: Sergei Osip’ian i Aleksandr Lungin, rezhissery fil’ma ‘Iavlenie prirody’,” RuData.ru 11 June 2010.
Act of Nature, Russia, 2010
Colour, 75 min
Directors and Sxcriptwriters: Sergei Osip’ian, Aleksandr Lungin
Director of Photography: Roman Bas’ianov
Production Designer: Denis Lishchenko
Music: Fedor Sofronov
Costumes: Nadezhda Lukinova
Sound: Kirill Petrikov
Cast: Gleb Podgorodinskii, Kseniia Kutepova, Mikhail Palatnik, Fedor Lavrov, Igor Chernevich
Producers: Violetta Krechetova, Artem Vasil’ev, Alexander Lungin, Sergei Osip’ian, Dmitrii Gorelik, Andrei Karakhan
Production: Metrafilms, AdressFilm
Sergei Osip’ian and Aleksandr Lungin: Act of Nature (Iavlenie prirody, 2010)
reviewed by Ian Garner © 2011