Issue 40 (2013)
Taisia Igumentseva: Road to... (Doroga na..., 2011)
reviewed by Anastasia Kayiatos © 2013
Rus', whither are you speeding?
Nikolai Gogol’, Dead Souls (1842)
If contemporary cinema is any indication, the accursed question at the end of Dead Souls is very much alive for the first fully post-Soviet generation. Covering similar terrain as Gogol’s troika, only with a modern-day commuter bus, young filmmaker Taisia Igumentseva (b. 1989) offers her twenty-first century audience no quick or definite answers as to whither Russia is speeding nowadays in her debut, Road to…. For all its implicit interest in national identity, the short feature premiered to international success in 2012, receiving the Grand Prix in the Cinéfondation competition at the 65th Cannes Film Festival. A late contender in stereotypically Russian style, Road to… was submitted as an independent entry and not a student work, although it was realized as a thesis project in Alexei Uchitel’’s studio at the All-Russian State University of Cinema (VGIK). Despite Uchitel’’s continued support, Igumentseva earned the lone less-than-perfect grade in her graduating class, allegedly for reasons of controversial language over artistic caliber (Fomenko 2012). She and her mentor were handily vindicated on native soil at the 2012 “Kinotavr” Open Russian Film Festival, where Road to... received a pair of prizes for “future shorts” and the laureate’s diploma “for creative courage and nonconformism.”
The award for courageous nonconformism fits a film whose hydraulic plot shows the flow of individual expression stymied by the status quo from its opening sequence onward. The camera slowly pans over a sleepy, snowcapped suburb, packed densely with the post-Stalin high-rises that have stood for social uniformity in the Russian moviegoer’s mind since The Irony of Fate (Ironiia sud’by, ili S legkim parom!, 1975). As the image pauses at some point in the indistinct skyline, a scream off-screen slices through the stillness with the sharp proclamation, “Fuck you all!” (Poshli vse na khui!) This is how Road to… introduces its “invisible man” protagonist, Sergei (Sergei Abroskin)—first as a vulgar, disembodied voice, then as a besuited Oblomovian thirty-something, beaten up and crammed into the corner of the second shot inside one of these very apartment buildings. As the rest of the frame lights up, flat-mate Igor Stepanovich (Sergei Podkolzin) comes into view to overwhelm Sergei once more. A meddling ded of robust Soviet stock, Igor has been sitting in the dark awaiting the young man’s arrival and monitoring his sleeping patterns and general health. (This initial intrusion prefaces the more egregious violations of personal boundaries Igor later commits, culminating in a pushy proposition to purify Sergei from inside out with a special enema, and then actually swabbing Sergei’s face with a poultice of his urine.)
These first scenes establish an aesthetics of palpable compression and repression that stays with the rest of the film, linking up its form and content. Typified by static long shots of more than a minute apiece, the camerawork of Road to… feels just as stuck as the characters. And the viewer is also kept uncomfortably close to the “modern person” Sergei embodies: average, awkward and cut off from himself and others (Dombrovskaia 2012). His loneliness in a crowd is eloquently conveyed by the claustrophobic city bus he rides in silence each day down the main road to his job at an online electronics company. Effectively rendered in cringe-inducing cinéma vérité which Western viewers will know from The Office TV series, interactions on the job are made all the uneasier in the deafening lack of nondiegetic sound. On the whole, the virtual store is a compact metaphor for technological connectedness at the cost of human contact, and its odd inventory of automated body parts, like the Ultimate Hand massaging device, demonstrates just how alienated from itself contemporary society has become. Like the manual prosthesis, “We live as surrogates,” Igumentseva mused in an interview. “We carry out some kind of mechanical labor, we have sharply scheduled days. But in the process we pay absolutely no attention to one another…” (Dombrovskaia).
Road to… quietly crawls its way out of this stultifying scenario and aspires to new horizons for Sergei and the rest of his lost generation, whose naked, undirected desire—with a nod to Fellini’s La Strada—is routed onto the archetypal road. In the background of every scene, the sound of cars whirring by reminds us that transport is always possible for the stagnant protagonists, if not necessarily easy or self-evident. The first timid steps out of the movie’s microcosm are instigated by Sergei’s coworker, Liza. Played by Anna Rud’, her old-world loveliness and loaded literary name tip the audience off to the fact that her fate is not hers alone, but is instead bound up with the future of Russia. One day, Liza invites Sergei to take a lunch break with her in a new place—simply put, “not here” [nezdes’]—and the two end up nestled silently beneath a brick archway in a sprawling wintry landscape, poised on the threshold of a journey at once individual and national, destination unknown.
Before they can set out on their own, though, the movie leads Sergei and Liza back through the country’s past, and Igor Stepanovich acts as the feckless fatherly guide to Sergei’s superfluous son. With his doorbell clanging out “Kalinka,” the white-haired man of the house is a kitschy hodgepodge of Russian and Soviet history, putting high and low culture into such perverse proximity that, like a new-age Pisarev, he is able to lower the lofty poetic tradition to the level of homeopathic grass. “Herbs are our everything. Like Pushkin,” he informs his young charge. (Travy—nashe vse. Kak Pushkin.) Of course, literary legacies offer little help to a postmodern superfluous person like Sergei, whose physical impotence before the sexually aggressive Liza is rivaled only by the degree of his metaphysical passivity.
All this flies out the window at nightfall, when the film’s dormant hero rouses from his existential slumber, gussies himself up (in a supremely uncool primping montage), and marches with singular purpose through the town. The cinematography gets sympathetically agitated here, switching from a compulsively steady camera to a shaky handheld one that tracks Sergei’s back to the courtyard-cum-amphitheater for his masterful declamation of mat (vulgar language). On account of this spectacular show of profanity, some critics have seen a particular three-letter word materialize in place of the title’s elliptical dots, which is certainly reasonable to suppose. But those conservative Russian audiences who reflexively object to the string of expletives issuing from Sergei’s mouth—prudish VGIK professors included—mistake the intentions of the script. Road to... turns to mat not for superficial shock value but because it is a philosophical “distress signal, the SOS of national catastrophe,” a straight shot to the Russian soul, or so says Dostoevsky in A Writer’s Diary (Erofeyev 2007).
Indeed, mat in Igumentseva’s movie strips language down to the crude human impulse to communicate, to connect one’s self to an Other, whether through violence, as Sergei’s solo recitals do; or love, as in the abject duet he and Liza perform in the courtyard on the last night of the film, their foreplay to sexual and spiritual communion. Before the former occurs, Liza sits in Sergei’s bedroom window to smoke and, staring out at the sky and the sleeping city below, she utters the only concrete place name of the entire film—her street, Mamaevskaya. Though this is probably not the blank destination of Road to..., it is a destination. Indeed, it is a real point on the vast horizon line that the couple, elegantly clad and perched on a hilltop as the credits roll, can catch in their gaze and move toward together.
Fans of Road to... can follow Igumentseva and her collaborators Uchitel’, Abroskin, and Golovina this summer, when she will screen her first feature-length film, Bite the Dust (Otdat’ kontsy), a magical realist look at the Russian village on the eve of apocalypse.
University of Southern California
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Dombrovskaia, Inga (2012), “Cinéfondation: Taisiia Igumentseva o svoem kannskom fil'me ‘Doroga na...’,” (interview). RFI 29 April.
Erofeyev, Victor (2003). “Dirty Words: The Unique Power of Russian Underground Language.” The New Yorker 15 September, pp. 42-48.
Fomenko, Viktoriia (2012), “"Rossiiane privezli v Kanny maternyi fil'm,” Trud 22 May.
Road to..., 2011
Color, 32 minutes
Director: Taisiia Igumentseva
Script: Aleksandra Golovina
Cinematography: Aleksandr Tananov
Art Director: Natal'ia Kliukina, Alina Lugmanova
Editing: Taisiia Igumentseva
Sound: Igor' Tarasov
Original Music: Dmitrii Komissarov, Dmitrii Lisitsa, Timur Maximov, Igor Tarasov
Cast: Sergei Abroskin, Anna Rud', Sergei Podkolzin, Vladimir Gorislavets
Producers: Taisiia Igumentseva, Aleksei Uchitel'
Production: Rock Films
Taisia Igumentseva: Road to... (Doroga na..., 2011)
reviewed by Anastasia Kayiatos © 2013