Issue 42 (2013)
Andrei Stempkovskii: The Delivery Guy (Raznoschik, 2013)
reviewed by Masha Kowell © 2013
In his second film, The Delivery Guy, director Andrei Stempkovskii offers a critique of the contemporary Russian society through his portrayal of an existential drama. Unhurriedly and virtually without words, the director dwells on the unbridgeable rift between the rapidly modernizing Moscow and its economically decaying environs. By juxtaposing images of glass-and-steel corporate buildings and sleek, expensive cars with shots of rusting metal, forlorn gas stations, and crumbling agricultural infrastructure, the director sets up a symbolic confrontation against which the main storyline unfurls. What unifies these seemingly incompatible spheres, however, is the inexorable moral decay that renders personal relationships and/or communal obligations entirely disposable. Stempkovskii’s predilection for a multifaceted formal stalling, comprising protracted long shots, intimate and drawn-out close-ups, minimal dialogue, and a cacophony of everyday sounds, enacts the mire of the social decomposition he describes.
The film recounts a story of a pizza deliveryman, Alex (Aleksandr Plaksin). Alex travels on his motorcycle from the outskirts of Moscow, where he lives in a bleak, Soviet-era apartment, to the city where he works. The highway he takes every day traverses a flat, desolate landscape of grass fields and occasional trees. This road embodies the sole connecting line between the economically depressed suburbia and the wealthy Moscow, itself widely metastasized with pockets of poverty—squalid markets and seedy cafes. Alex takes care of his dying father, a cancer patient with only two months to live. A costly surgery in Germany could save him, but Alex cannot afford it. One day Alex attempts to deliver a pizza to an apartment in Moscow. After no one opens the door when he rings the doorbell, he notices a white envelope and discovers that it contains a solution to his problem, namely, a request to assassinate a businessman in exchange for thirty thousand dollars. Such money will enable Alex to pay for his father’s surgery and save his life, albeit at the expense of another. Psychologically riven by this moral dilemma, Alex “delivers” the goods, as he follows the instructions and murders the man. Overwhelmed by a sense of guilt, he ultimately confesses to the wife of the murdered man, at which point Alex declares his intention to surrender to the police. In a sudden plot twist, it emerges that the wife paid for the “hit.” After Alex finishes his conversation with the wife, the director offers a distant shot of an unknown man who briefly talks to her as she gets into her Porsche Cayenne. Unmistakably after having received instructions from the businessman’s wife, the unknown man gives chase to and reaches Alex’s motorcycle, pulls out a gun, and shoots him in the head. Alex falls on the side of the road. The credits immediately appear, as suddenly Stempkovskii shows a scene in which Sergei (Evgenii Tkachuk)—Alex’s cousin, who is a likely culprit of an earlier, unsolved double murder—purchases a motorcycle. In doing so, he easily replaces Alex as the delivery guy. The ease with which Sergei replaces Alex reaffirms Stempkovskii’s message of the disposability of human life. Morally solid choices, such as Alex’s confession, remain unrewarded.
The film’s aesthetics of verbal reticence, accompanied with a mixture of ambient noises (e.g. television sounds, traffic bustle, humming of the wind, rustling of grass, exhale of cigarette smoke, vibration of cellular phones, and minimal dialogue) effectively articulates the general atomization of Russian citizens. The camera often refrains even from showing the words of text messages on telephone screens, permitting only their sonic traces, such as beeping or ringing, to enter the frame. Within the strict economy of interpersonal communication, Stempkovskii further flags the reign of quasi-sociopathic, reflexive tendencies such as silent intercourse, public urination, lonesome binge eating, vomiting on the street, heavy drinking, and spontaneous, physical aggression. These largely primal urges displace more circumspect responses to everyday crises. In a world of emotional stupor and inhibited rationality, commiseration, crying, and empathizing are not merely rare but rather abnormal. After Alex commits the murder, he goes to a cheap café. The camera unrelentingly records his mechanistic devouring of food. Overwhelmed by the insatiable appetite; he gets up to order seconds. The clatter of popular music and his sloppy chewing saturate the screen as his hands bend the greased bread, shoving it into his mouth. Unable to contain the food, he later vomits. The sounds of disgorging in a pitch-black alley, where Alex remains largely invisible, conclude the six long minutes of this sequence during which Alex does not utter a single word.
In the film, Alex has a potential love interest, Dasha (Dar’ia Ekamasova). The instances of their courtship are reduced to short motorcycle rides and a brief conversation about his dying father. Although Dasha cares about Alex, she nevertheless sleeps with Sergei. Alex accidentally witnesses the act that takes place in a manure-strewn cowshed. The close-up of his indifferent face is more shocking then his sudden discovery of Dasha’s promiscuity. Stempkovskii’s preference for these kinds of intimate close-ups transforms the camera into his probing device, capable of staying stubbornly transfixed at a single point or relentlessly shadowing the protagonist’s every move.
An exposition of “genuine” love and longing is seldom in this film. Faithful marriage and child-rearing have no place in Stempkovskii’s Russia. While sitting in a rundown barn and manually recording an inventory of sacks with grain or potatoes, Dasha’s friend, Rita, asks Dasha if she intends to have children with Sergei and marry him. While aimlessly doodling with her pen, Dasha rhetorically deplores: “Where? Here? What’s then?” The crux of the plot itself confirms a decomposition of spousal relationships. After all, it is a wife’s desire to murder her wealthy, if even immoral, husband that sets Alex’s fate in motion.
Despite the paucity of familial and communal warmth, the various manifestations of Alex’s filial love punctuate the film. Since words are rarely exchanged between the two, Alex’s gentle adjustment of blankets and pillows, pouring of tea, washing of dishes, making of sandwiches, and lifting of his father’s weak body imply his affection toward his father. This love, in whose name Alex has carried out “the unspeakable,” a murder, most patently comes into relief in their confrontation at an expensive hospital. Alex announces that the surgery would take place in Germany. The father irrationally rejects the idea, expressing a bias against Germany associated with Russia’s World War II experience. He then musters the strength to get up as Alex throws himself at him. Both physically and psychologically exhausted, they grunt and wrestle on the hospital bed until Alex suddenly clings to his father’s body and begins to sob. Ironically, the heart-wrenching scene of the embrace between a parent and a child takes place against the background of President Dmitrii Medvedev’s national address, emanating from the television set in the room. Stempkovskii does not show the image of the talking president. By doing so, he transforms the president’s voice into white noise incompatible with the drama of human suffering. He masterfully places the largely “voiceless” contemporary subjects into center stage.
Stempkovskii produces an accusatory cinematic piece, grounded in unvarnished social critique. His film does not merely embody a mirror that he puts up in front of his audience, most likely constituted by individuals from the middle or upper-middle class. Rather, the director produces a set of thoroughly created allegorical tableaus. His deployment of protracted still-shots transfigures his “artless” montage into a string of quasi-painterly compositions: provincial landscapes, meager still lifes, listless smokers, repetitive work in abysmal conditions, genre scenes dominated by domestic despair, and episodes of emotionless intercourse. Although he seems to cite Jean-Luc Godard and Andrei Tarkovsky’s cinematic form, the film references the nineteenth-century European tradition of critical realism. Mundane labor and its monotonous processes (e.g. recording by hand, tightening of bolts, cleaning of manure, carrying of sacks, dishwashing, among many others) are sanctified in a variety of scenes. The arresting lingering of Stempkovskii’s camera on each tableau forces the viewer to examine the images intimately. He, therefore, recalibrates the audience’s habits of visual scanning, shaped by the barrage of instantaneous information, into a more focused, discriminating observation of the palpable moral and material crumbling of Russian society.
University of Pennsylvania
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The Delivery Man, Russia, 2013.
Color, 94 minutes
Director and Scriptwriter: Andrei Stempkovskii
Director of Photography: Dmitrii Uliukaev
Production Design: Anton Polikarpov
Sound: Stanislav Mikheev
Editing: Natalia Strakhova
Cast: Aleksandr Plaksin, Dar’ia Ekamasova, Evgenii Tkachuk, Juris Lautsinsh
Producer: Sofiko Kiknavelidze
Production: Beloe Zerkalo [White Mirror]
Andrei Stempkovskii: The Delivery Guy (Raznoschik, 2013)
reviewed by Masha Kowell © 2013