Issue 31 (2011)

Andrei Stempkovskii: Reverse Motion (Obratnoe dvizhenie, 2010)

reviewed by Sergey Dobrynin © 2011

 

“Why is the film called Reverse Motion?”
“It wasn’t the original title. In the beginning it was called Enemies. The film’s [current] title is based on a philosophical concept.”
(Andrei Stempkovskii in an interview with Tat’iana Khoroshilova)

reverseToo bad the director has not elaborated on the metaphysical concept behind the title. My limited knowledge of Nietzsche can only prompt that it has to do with the return to the innocent state that allows man to get closer to the eternal and frees him from fears of death. I cannot even say whether the source is The Will to Power or On the Genealogy of Morals. However, I was strongly reminded of another meaning of the phrase: the cinematographic effect when the action is played backward. The film seems to be a flashback to the  late 1980s or early 1990s, perhaps, when Russian films were full of unhappy people trying to muddle through their unhappy lives among the ruins of the socialist dream. Those films invariably managed to make some larger-than-life statement on why “One Cannot Live This Way.” The Russians may not have become any happier since, but the genre has lost its novelty.

The film’s heroine, a small-time “entrepreneur” named Alevtina (Ol’ga Demidova), is desperately waiting for news of her son who has gone missing in an “armed conflict zone” (read: Chechnya). She deals stoically with the military commissariat functionary who is annoyed by her persistence, and with her best friend’s admonitions. The said friend, Lena (Dar’ia Gracheva), owns a railroad-side kiosk next to Alevtina’s. Lena’s suppliers are bandits “knocking over” trucks to provide her with goods. One day she takes three Tajik migrants (read: slaves) from a squalid “dorm” for illegal workers to help unload a van. One of them, merely a boy, falls, breaks merchandise, hurts his arm, and disappears. He reappears at Alevtina’s, who feeds him, takes him to a private hospital and hides him from Lena and her murderous entourage. Meanwhile, her son’s army buddy (Aleksandr Plaksin) comes to visit—and to testify to his friend’s death.

reverseOne day, her son Anatolii (played by Vladislav Abashin, whom we have seen in the war-scene prologue) returns from the dead. The family reunion, however, is far from a happy scene the viewer would have all the rights to expect from a more conventional movie. It appears that the tears and the joy have been left out of the frame on purpose. In fact, the director has on numerous occasions stated his intention to stay away from any open display of emotion, opting instead for long silences and almost dispassionate faces, for showing the aftermath of the event rather than the event itself (see, for example, Khoroshilova, Abdullaeva, Kopchevskaia). It is such a studied, concerted effort that one cannot help wondering who was the inspiration behind this minimalist approach. The Dardenne Brothers? Bruno Dumont? Aleksandr Sokurov? The answer may come two thirds into the movie. The son watches TV. What he is watching is apparently important for our understanding of the story and the style. It is The American Soldier, a 1970 film by Rainer Werner Fassbinder. The significance is driven home when the return of the hero is announced in the film, “Er ist da!” (He is here).

It is time to stop and contemplate The American Soldier for a moment. One of Fassbinder’s early efforts, it has as its protagonist an expatriate German contract killer who has spent some years in America and even fought in the Vietnam war. Upon return to his native Munich, he sports sharp “American gangster” clothes, drives fast cars, swigs Ballantine’s whiskey, seduces women, and delivers “hits” until, betrayed by his own incestuous and homosexual brother, he dies in a shootout with the police. At first sight, there is nothing much in common with our hero. Fassbinder’s film was, after all, inspired by the American film noir and early Godard. It is a cinematic fantasy to begin with, containing nothing authentic. Why would anyone think of grafting it on present-day Russia?

reversePerhaps for the same reason that Fassbinder transplanted noir ambience to late-1960s Germany. Both heroes (or anti-heroes) are fatally out of their element. Both have fought in useless wars. Both are taciturn and practically do not speak at all, certainly not about their exploits. “How was it over there?”Anatolii is asked. “Not too great,” comes a reluctant answer. Both revisit old haunts, but find nothing that connects them; the old friends are gone. The homecoming, the return to the state of grace, is impossible. Especially telling are the visits to the mother. The mother is emotionless in The American Soldier; she seems to be dominated by her doting younger son. In Reverse Motion, the son becomes jealous of the adopted boy who is silently watching over them. Even more similarities will appear at the end, but in the meantime, the plot thickens.

reverseIt transpires in Lena’s conversation with her bandit friend, who is also a former soldier (Nikita Emshanov), that the boy is more than chattel; he is a dangerous witness to how this thug and his gang have “wiped off thirty blacks.” Now, even knowing that racially motivated crime has become common in Russia, especially in Moscow, the number of victims is so preposterously high that it is difficult to take seriously. If that happened, would the perpetrators leave any witnesses? Highly unlikely. And if they decided to let the boy go then, why is it suddenly a priority that he should be silenced now? Anyway, the wily gangster finds the boy and captures him. The son goes to the rescue. The boy is saved, but the son dies in a shootout in the interiors that copy Fassbinder’s underground passage to a T, all white tiles and wriggling bodies. The mother is at home in front of a mirror. Does she know? Does she not? We don’t know. A long pause. Four minutes. The end.
 
reverseThere is no doubt about the director’s best intentions or his intelligence or the amount of effort involved. The work of the sound director is especially impressive. It creates an aural environment that is almost palpable. The film pays equally meticulous attention to detail of everyday life in a provincial town. Stempkovskii insisted on his purposeful avoidance of anything spectacular: “We did very few close-ups, which are always a powerful emotional stimulus. Instead, we paid attention to the textures—both visual and sonic. We worked seriously on these hard-to-capture things that create an inimitable field of reception. The actors… were called upon for very hard work: a lot of pauses and static positions demanded an unusual talent” (Kopchevskaia). All that effort is there on the screen. The actors, especially Ol’ga Demidova as Alevtina and Dar’ia Gracheva as Lena, do not look the least bit actress-y.

Their motivations, however, are not as convincing. An aging Russian woman taking in a Muslim child? The situation is not inconceivable, but under the circumstances it does not ring any truer than Nikita Mikhalkov’s former Security Service officer adopting a Chechen boy in 12 (2007). How Anatolii comes to his decision to risk his life to save the boy is not quite clear either. Marina Timasheva has said that “the relationship between the biological son and the adopted son undergoes a complex development: from jealousy, fear, mutual suspicion, hostility—to male brotherhood” (Timasheva). That may have been the idea, but the director’s manner of leaving everything important behind the screen does not give us the opportunity to share in this development. Both Soviet and post-Soviet films have often excelled at making a child the focus of attention and a metaphor for a clear-eyed view of the world. The boy in Reverse Motion, however, remains a cipher throughout. The insistence on de-emotionalizing the characters has led to dehumanizing them. Or is it the director’s way of saying that in this environment everyone is a victim anyway?

reverseReverse Motion is one of the slew of new Russian films that use the fate of illegal or semi-legal migrant workers in Russia both as an appeal to tolerance and a comment on the “internal temperature” of the Russian body politic (see Beumers). It can also be seen as a part of an even more general trend of displacement and incommunicability in Russian society today. Even the bleakest films of the perestroika era still managed to suggest some way to reanimate society; now stasis has set in. Everyone lives in a cockoon and treats others with suspicion. It may be that the original title of the film, Enemies, was more to the point, after all.

Like many recent Russian films, Reverse Motion presents a country that is strangely depopulated. In Andrei Zviagintsev’s The Return (Vozvrashchenie, 2003) there was no single figure on the screen without a role to play. The trend has grown even more prominent since. Petr Leznikov writes in his review of Kinotavr 2010, “If one has to believe the directors… we exist in a vacuum. Our capital city is presented as if everyone has died out… What can be said about other towns and villages? Elementary particles are wandering about in a rarefied space” (Leznikov). Not only are there fewer Russians, but they have also become less inclined to talk. Again, Stempkovskii made it a conscious decision, arguing even that his film was “too wordy” and saying that he deleted the “text” on purpose, so that the “picture” could speak. He sees himself as solving a problem: an “overloading of the information field.” It is all very well in theory, but in reality the film loses a chance to tell a tragic and moving story. The rigorous rules the director has set for himself undermine the film’s power.

The film was the last work of co-producer Mikhail Kalatozishvili, Mikhail Kalatozov’s grandson, who died in the early stages of the production. With all respect due the late filmmaker and the Mikhail Kalatozov Fund that financed the film, its prospects are limited. According to the website film.ru, the company is not planning to release any current films, presumably including this one, in Russia in the near future, which may be a wise move. The natural habitat for films like Reverse Motion is the international festival and art-house circuit, where there are still a few people willing to discuss modern-day Russia in metaphysical terms, afforded by cultural differences and geographical distance. Reverse Motion has already won two major awards, at Kinotavr 2010 and at the Montreal World Film Festival. In an average Russian movie theater, however, this film does not stand a chance. It is not because the Russians are not interested in their own social or existential issues; it is because life rarely feels so remote, only art movies do.

Sergey Dobrynin
Toronto

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Works Cited

Abdullaeva, Zara, “Opyt,” Iskusstvo kino 8 (2010),

Beumers Birgit, “Kinotavr 2010: Migration and Isolation”, KinoKultura 30 (2010).

Khoroshilova, Tat’iana, “Obratnoe dvizhenie,” interview with Andrei Stempkovskii, Soiuz Belarus-Rossiia, 12 Nov. 2010.

Kopchevskaia, Aleksandra, “Eto vyshe boli,” RuData.ru 11 June 2010.

Leznikov, Petr, “Kinotavr: Defibrilliatsiia,” Seans, 27 June 2010.

Timasheva, Marina, “Tikhoe gore Obratnogo dvizheniia,” Radio Liberty, 24 August 2010.

 


Reverse Motion, Russia, 2010.
Color, 92 mins.
Director: Andrei Stempkovskii.
Screenplay: Anush Vardanian and Andrei Stempkovskii.
Cinematography: Zaur Bokotaev.
Production Design: Sergei Avstrievskikh.
Music: Il’ia Balaban.
Cast: Ol’ga Demidova, Vladislav Abashin, Dar’ia Gracheva, Nikita Emshanov, Aleksandr Plaksin, Georgii Gatsoev.
Producers: Andrei Bondarenko, Mikhail Kalatozishvili, Andrei Stempkovskii, Vladislav Rozin.

Andrei Stempkovskii: Reverse Motion (Obratnoe dvizhenie, 2010)

reviewed by Sergey Dobrynin © 2011

Updated: 12 Jan 11