Issue 33 (2011)
Slava Ross: Siberia, MonAmour (Sibir’ MonAmour, 2011)
reviewed by Christina Stojanova © 2011
Siberia, MonAmour is the second film of director Slava Ross, who debuted with Dumb Fat Hare (Tupoi zhirnyi zaiats, 2006). It combines with a surprising professional conventionality and originality, stereotype and archetype, and has been deservedly recognized with the main prize at the IX edition of the exuberant “Spirit of Fire” festival in Khanty-Mansiisk for first and second films (19-25 February 2011).
Certainly, watching a film about Siberia at a Siberian festival helps, although the modern architecture of the affluent city of Khanty-Mansiisk—the administrative centre of Yugra Autonomous Region, situated on a rich oil patch along the Irtysh river, close to its confluence with the Ob’—has very little to do with the hard and impoverished taiga life of the film’s characters. Unlike most Russian films in and outside of the main competition, Siberia, MonAmour quite comfortably displayed its identity of a mainstream film, flaunting sound and knowable characters, inhabiting an equally sound narrative, and an excellent camera work (by Iurii Raiskii and Aleksei Todorov), which does not shy away from sentimental, even trite juxtaposition of majestic Siberian panoramas and emotionally charged close-ups.
At the centre of the main, realistic plot-line stands the little boy Leshka (the beguile child-actor Misha Prots’ko), who lives with his fiercely religious grand-dad Ivan (played by the veteran character actor Petr Zaichenko, who received the award for Best Actor) in a remote deserted settlement, called with sad irony “MonAmour.” Both survive on goat milk, some game, and on whatever the boy’s Uncle Iura—the brother of his deceased mother, who lives in a distant village—could smuggle past the watchful eye of his wife Anna, who objects not so much to helping the boy and the old man, but to her husband making those long and dangerous trips deep into the taiga, insisting that they leave MonAmour and move in with them and their three daughters. The twosome, however, especially the boy, are determined to stay put and wait for their long-gone father and son to finally return to the only home they have, unaware that he, once a decorated Chechen-war hero, has been knifed to death in a drunken brawl with his newly found criminal cronies. The mundane dynamics of the relationship between devoted grandfather and his precocious grandson, punctuated by Uncle Iura’s sporadic visits, is thrown into disarray by two criminal antiquarians, raiding the settlement’s abandoned houses for valuable old icons. It so happens that the only precious item they actually come across is in grand-dad Ivan’s house, where they are invited to spend the night. And in defiance of the sacred law of hospitality, the thugs steal the icon, leaving grand-dad almost dead after a skirmish, and the child alone to care for him.
The original and self-sufficient main narrative is intertwined with a secondary, sensational and naturalistic plot line, highly influenced by the aesthetics of chernukha films, which is uncannily remindful of Sergei Loznitsa’s My Joy (Schast’e moe, 2010). This plot-line introduces a couple of military men in search of a woman they should deliver to the commander of the local base. The senior member of the search crew, the Captain (Nikolai Kozak), is a heavy drinking veteran of the Chechen wars, who always seems to bounce on the verge of some kind of major trouble—whether a nervous breakdown or a fatal shootout. His young driver, on the other hand, is a recent, wide-eyed recruit called Zhelezniak, who promptly falls in love with the young prostitute Liuba, whom they manage to buy off her pimps in order to deliver her to their lascivious base commander. Due to a sudden change of heart, however, upon arrival the Captain declares the girl is his niece and therefore off sexual limits. And when the commander pulls rank in his attempts to claim his ownership of her, the Captain kills him and flees with the young lovers.
While the second plot line seems superfluous, it is easy to see its merits with regard to potential audiences—both Russian and foreign. It is rife with ethnic, sexual and gender stereotypes that have proven commercially successful since Aleksei Balabanov’s Brother (Brat, 1996): corrupt and disintegrating power structures, in this case the military; treacherous Chechen pimps and pub owners, who have reached as far as the heart of Siberia; devastating poverty, breeding prostitution and women trafficking, and, to top it all, the possibility of redemption, epitomized by the vigilante hero, who usually is a Chechen war veteran.
Yet the director has miraculously succeeded in making these stereotypes come alive by engaging melodramatic narrative strategies like coincidences, last-minute rescues and such. Thus, he could incorporate seamlessly the realistic plot-line within the metaphorical presence of God, but most of all—of the majestic Siberian nature. Yet although God is very much present in Ivan’s and Leshka’s lives, who listen and pray to him, and suffer when his icon is stolen, he is nonetheless a deus otiosus—the idle or neutral God who, after creating the world has withdrawn from it, leaving his creatures to their own devices. In such a world, it is Nature that takes over in its two sublime aspects—one Good and nurturing, and the other Evil and treacherous. The latter, usually more powerful, is represented by packs of wild wolf-dogs roaming the taiga, whose ominous presence and vicious random attacks take both plots to the level of an archetypal confrontation between Good versus Evil on the loose that always lurk in the unknown. The dogs make themselves known at important junctions of each plot line, but while the secondary plot is only punctuated by their hair-raising howls, they actually attack and harm the more vulnerable characters, populating the main narrative. With escalating cruelty, the packs attack and kill grand-dad Ivan’s precious goat and then devour Uncle Iura before he can deliver his scant supplies to their destination. The wild dogs—as a symbol of uncontrollable evil—play a decisive role in the narrative, giving it a twist at the climactic moment. Ivan, convalescent after the injuries he received from the antiquarians, tries to chase away a former pack dog that has somehow re-domesticated himself as Leshka’s pet, failing to recognize that this particular dog is unlike the others. Within the context of Ivan’s staunch Christian faith, this failure to recognize the conversion of Evil to Good has far-reaching consequences. In his attempts to lure back his only and faithful friend, Leshka falls into a dry well, which forces Ivan to take the long and dangerous trip to the distant highway where the Captain, Liuba and Zhelezniak rescue him at the last minute from the dogs already gnawing at his flesh.
In this light, all the evils that befell the characters could be seen as divine retribution for their trespasses inflicted, however, not by God, but by powerful Nature. And even the freak incident with Uncle Iura could be interpreted as a punishment for his bending so easily under his wife’s pressure to abandon the old man and the boy. At the same time Aunt Anna—who fails to save Leshka and his grand-dad as she arrives too late at the scene and ignores all the significant clues—is redeemed when she shoots dead one of the criminals stranded amidst the first winter snow, and chases the other away to his certain death.
The finale wraps up quite fittingly this mythic aspect of the film. After Leshka is dragged out of the dry well by the Captain, whom he embraces as his long-lost father, all the misfits board the military jeep and hit the road to salvation. On a realistic level such a salvation is impossible since grand-dad would have been most certainly killed by the dogs, Leshka would have met a horrible death in the well, while the Captain and Zhelezniak would have faced a firing squad or life in military prison, and Liuba would have been returned to her pimps; therefore, their final ride turns into a metonymy of the fabled voyage to the world beyond—to that place of rest, described in the Orthodox Funeral Service as a “place of light, in a place of green pasture, in a place of refreshment, from where pain and sorrow and mourning are fled away...”
What saves the finale from propounding a pessimistic eschaton—a myth of the end of the world which sees death as the only way to salvation—and brings the narrative back to less convincing but much more popular melodramatic realism, is the excellent casting, which has been more concerned with vivid characters than with ideological (religious, political, social) stand-ins. By mixing and matching—along with newcomers—committed and seasoned actors (Zaichenko and Kozak) not only in leading but also in the supporting roles, the director-scriptwriter succeeds in turning his otherwise schematic and somewhat naive fable and its stock characters into a moving drama (defined in the festival catalogue as “biblical”), and to skillfully translate it into knowable social situations, hailing from contemporary Russia, and above all, to create convincing portrayals, of positive and negative archetypal figures. A case to point is Sergei Puskepalis, Aleksei Popogrebskii’s actor from Simple Things (Prostye veshchi, 2007) and How I Ended This Summer (Kak ia provel etim letom, 2010), whose dark introverted charisma saves one of the weakest roles in the film—the lascivious renegade high-ranking officer—from the traps of the déjà-vu of the negative stereotype of a classical-music-listening and philosophy-rambling military sadist. An even greater job is accomplished by the theatre actress Lidiia Bairashevskaia as the seemingly demonic, but actually confused and otherwise good-hearted Aunt Anna. The composer Sergei Novikov does an equally good job, playing her mellow and perennially drunk husband, Uncle Iura. Former child-star actor Maksim Emel’ianov (Zhelezniak) and debutante Sonia Oleinik (Liuba) also rise to the challenge thanks to their good chemistry not only as lovers but also in the complex triangle involving the neurotic Captain. Even the uncredited actors in episodic roles like the antiquarian-thugs or Aunt Anna’s lover, create rich, full-blooded characters, making the film a pleasure to watch.
University of Regina
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Siberia MonAmour, Russia, 2011
Director and Scriptwriter: Slava Ross
DoP: Iurii Raiskii, Aleksei Todorov
Production Design: Grigorii Pushkin
Costume Design: Mariia Rtisheva
Composer: Aidar Gainullin
Sound: Arsenii Troitskii
Editor: Igor Litoninskii
Cast: Petr Zaichenko, Mikhail Prots’ko, Sergei Novikov, Lidiia Bairashevskaia, Nikolai Kozak, Maksim Emel’ianov, Sonia Ross, Juris Lautsinysh, Viacheslav Kovalev, Sergei Tsepov, Marianna Shul’ts, Ol’ga Kuzmina, Sergei Puskepalis
Producers: Vadum Zhuk, Slava Ross, Igor’ Chekalin
General Producer: Pavel Skurikhin
Production: Tundra Film with support from the Fund of Cinema
Slava Ross: Siberia, MonAmour (Sibir’ MonAmour, 2011)
reviewed by Christina Stojanova © 2011