Issue 42 (2013)
Yusup Razykov: Shame (Styd, 2013)
reviewed by Vida Johnson © 2013
Will the Uzbek director Yusup Razykov, living and working in Moscow, ever get any respect for his directorial skill from Russian critics or at Russian film festivals? A case in point: his latest film Shame earned the FIPRESCI award at Karlovy Vary while finding no recognition at Kinotavr in Sochi, just like his previous film Gastarbeiter three years ago. Razykov has a solid body of work and the professional and organizational skill to have maneuvered through the film-industry’s transition from soviet to post-soviet and from Uzbek to Russian cinema. While famous Central Asian filmmakers of the older generation such as Ali Khamraev and Khodzhakuli Narliev have not found the same success in post-soviet Moscow, Razykov, a member of the “middle” generation (educated in Soviet times, finding success as the Soviet Union began to break apart) has gone from being the head of Uzbekfilm and the internationally acclaimed director of Orator (Uzbekistan, 1998) to a busy Moscow filmmaker, who, while directing TV serials, has also scripted and directed well-crafted feature films. And he has done this, so to speak, under the radar, with little recognition for his growing body of work. But finding the funding for a feature film every two to three years is no small feat, as is his ability to produce a script, to quickly shoot and edit the film, and bring it in on budget. Despite his complaint in an interview that no other film had been so difficult for him (as it took three years to get the funding), he managed to shoot it in just three weeks, in the harsh frozen North, in the Murmansk region, thanks partly to the locals’ hospitality and excellent regional theater actors, as well as a very small cast of St. Petersburg actors.
In Shame,Razykov for the first time does not write the initial script himself (it is written by Ekaterina Mavromatis, a recent graduate from the Higher Courses for Directors and Scriptwriters), although his active participation in it earns him screenwriting credit. Razykov returns here to one of his favorite subjects: the inner and outer lives of women. He has more than once admitted in interviews that he was raised and surrounded by women and is thus interested in what shapes their lives. He seems to be particularly fascinated by the sacrifices women make, and, in an interview with this author, noted the parallel between his heroine, who had spent years being chained to a dying mother’s bedside, and the actress who played her, whose personal history is uncannily similar.
The film is not likely to get much distribution in Russia because its title seems to constitute a challenge to the Russian government’s handling of the Kursk disaster: the women living in this god- and government-forsaken military outpost find out that there has been a submarine disaster. It is ironic that word comes first not from the government but from the salmon-farm “businessmen” who failed to receive a fish food shipment because of the accident. Only later, after the women have surmised the truth, they are told by the military authorities what is, in fact, a lie, that knocking is heard from the submarine and that the men have 70 hours of oxygen left. (This is, of course, the exact story Russians were fed by the government and the press.) Although neither the town nor the submarine are ever named, the Kursk parallel is inescapable. But the film is not so much an indictment of the government’s blunder or its moral bankruptcy or even an expose of the failing state and infrastructure of the Russian military (all well-known), as it is a realistic look into the lives of those living in the far-reaches of the former Soviet empire, especially the women left behind to raise the children and wait for the men to return. Razykov himself was raised in a military family, and the scriptwriter spent her childhood in military outposts. The film has an authenticity of character and setting, aided simply and effectively by the use of locals and shot in partly-abandoned housing in outposts where the population has been reduced from a high of 12,000 in Soviet times, to some 450 today. And all this is set in a starkly and eerily beautiful, monumental northern landscape.
What then is the film really about, because from its very beginning there seem to be two story lines which only in the end will be united by the protagonist? In the brief opening scene, a lone young woman (with reddish-black hair, bright red lipstick and a bright red skirt) is chased in the deep snow and subdued by what turn out to be male nurses who take her away in a van. The film’s title, Shame, in large letters on a black background, separates this brief and completely unexplained episode (she seems to have run away from somewhere; is she a mental patient or a prostitute?) from the full-shot of a lighter-haired young woman in a well-tailored, bright blue coat, smoking as she ponders the distant vista of the water and the snow-laden landscape below. The submarine disaster will bring these two women together only at the film’s conclusion, but an observant viewer has been warned that not everything will be clearly spelled out, and that the film’s real message is more about the complexity of inner lives and traumas rather than the tragedy of external events. In fact, the film’s editing with sudden, razor-sharp cuts between often unrelated scenes, places this story not so much in the genre of melodrama but within the art film tradition. Or at least, that seems to be the director’s intent. To that effect, in a review of the film the noted critic Elena Stishova (2013) reminds us that in Tarkovsky’s Solaris, the feverish hero, Kris Kelvin, tells us that “shame is what will save the world.” (This may be completely coincidental but one can’t help noticing that one of the three men left in the military outpost is named Katasonov, reminding us of Katasonych in Tarkovsky’s Ivan’s Childhood.)
As befits a film with auteur inclinations, much attention is paid to the formal aspects of the cinematography, in the repetition of shots, point-of-view perspective, and color symbolism. The woman in the blue coat drives a red car which sharply contrasts with the white/gray/black landscape. Both she and the car don’t seem to belong there, and we will soon find out that Lena, hailing from St. Petersburg, is the recent bride of a naval officer who has gone to sea. Point-of-view shots of the landscape and the run-down military base from inside her car repeatedly alternate with close-ups of her enigmatic, emotionless face. Every time she re-enters the town she, and we, are greeted by the giant mural of a submarine looming above on the side of one of the apartment buildings. Although at first she drives the car slowly over the icy road (allowing us a good look at the landscape and the mostly abandoned soviet-era buildings), later she escapes the growing tension among the women, and her sense of non-belonging in their society, by speeding out into the countryside. She cannot seem to acknowledge the attempts by Valentina Ivanovna, the head of the Women’s Council, and de-facto boss in the outpost, to remind her that they must stick together like a family. The men’s job, she is told, is to sail (plavat’), but theirs is to wait and raise children. The kind schoolteacher tries to interest Lena in doing something useful, but Lena is encased in her palpable loneliness (her dark, dingy apartment), and even in the wedding photos she looks sad, or perhaps perplexed, next to her smiling husband. Not all is right in this new marriage, despite the single rose Lena receives daily as a gift from her husband, delivered by a young sailor. When the lights go out (as they often do), she sits quietly in the darkness, as an irate Valentina Ivanovna elsewhere expounds that their men are gone to sea, the base is about to be closed (we just discover this), and presciently yells: “Let’s board us up too! The windows and the doors with us inside!” That, of course, is what will shortly happen to their husbands. And the lovely young schoolteacher who tried to keep up everyone’s spirits will, later in the film, close the garage doors with the car running inside, killing herself and her children, as the truth becomes inescapable. This is perhaps a predictable (at least for this viewer) melodramatic touch in a film basically devoid of the melodrama that this kind of story tends to generate.
But before anything is known, Lena unsuccessfully tries to brighten up her room by putting up wallpaper with an orange Hawaiian sunset and the mandatory palm trees, but the wallpaper almost immediately starts to peel off. Lena then goes drinking in the local bar where she picks up a sturdy Russian who is successfully arm-wrestling his buddies. He takes her to the ship at the salmon farm (he is the director), with more point-of-view shots from the boat, but also an incongruous shot of Lena stepping gingerly in high heels and that same tailored blue city coat, while he has on a more normal big red parka. After an off-screen coupling, or a presumed one, since they are sitting naked and talking, she reveals more about her story, a marriage to a submariner and the death of her mother, and that after selling her mother’s apartment, her car has become her home. She talks in her usual monotone, and this momentary coming together leads to nowhere, although it shortly earns the defiant Lena the scorn of some of the local women as nothing is secret in this tiny enclave.
When rumors of the accident begin to spread, a howling neighborhood dog becomes the first harbinger of the disaster that has actually occurred. Anya, a pregnant native of Chukotka, tells Lena that the dog feels that the submarine is at the bottom of the sea, before bringing Lena to her “yaranga” (yurt) that her Russian husband lovingly built for her. The film reminds us of the multi-national nature of both the Soviet Union and its remains here in Russia’s North, a theme played out more directly in Razykov’s previous film Gastarbeiter. The Russian women may make fun of the female deer Anya’s relatives sent to provide milk for her soon-to-be born baby, but they, at the same time, respect the native custom of the North, feeding an angry sea: one of the women pours salt and throws in her old TV in the hopes that the sea will, in return, disgorge the submarine. (Upon her advice, even Lena asks in the local store for salt.) When the women later all stand vigil high above the water, we see the TV smashed on the rocks, rejected by the sea which clearly has kept the submarine and their men.
That disaster has struck is made clear when one of the three men in the outpost shoots and buries the dog who has refused to stop howling for his master. Yet the women try to believe the official report (that the men are alive still), despite increasing fear and hysteria. Lena sees the truth when in one of her outings she catches the information officer slugging down a drink as he looks at the sea. And even Valentina Ivanovna, who has valiantly tried to keep up the spirits of the women, breaks down, literally breaking her kitchen sink. In her drunken ranting Valentina Ivanovna defines the existence of the officers’ and sailors’ wives: “We need a war. We don’t know how to live any other way. What are we without a war? Who needs us? We are all married to war.” The following cut has Lena looking, again with no affect, at her husband’s fish tank with a submarine at the bottom, an image repeated a number of times, and perhaps too simplistic and too openly ironic for a film that tries to delve deeper into the human psyche. Although Lena does not share the women’s torment (and it becomes even clearer that she does not love her husband), she is not totally alienated from them: she uses her nursing skills, learned while taking care of her mother, to get medicine and to give shots, first to the schoolteacher’s ailing child, and later to Valentina Ivanovna when she has her breakdown.
Lena continues to show no emotion while packing to leave, even unable to respond to her lover’s query of why she is indifferent when the other women are going crazy, or to his angry judgment that she is “a bitch.” When Lena accidentally stumbles on a package of love letters to her husband by a woman named Irina, she begins the search that will connect her (and finally us viewers) to the young woman in the film’s opening scene. Ira was a teacher of drawing who, in her extreme fear of the dark, went mad and was abandoned by Lena’s now husband. She finds Irina in a hospital lock-down because she had burned down the veterans’ home where she was formerly housed. The submarine disaster takes a back seat now to Lena’s road back to life. We have the final explanation of what has kept her so emotionally dead: recognizing that Ira has been given strong medicine (she smells it in her urine when she tries to dispose of her bed pan), Lena admits to the doctor that her knowledge comes from taking care of her dying mother for four years; he in turns identifies her guilt for loving her mother yet wanting her dead for keeping her away from men and a normal life. This, of course, is the shame that Lena feels which prevents her from loving anyone, and finally, near the film’s end provides the answer the viewer has been seeking for Lena’s often inexplicable actions throughout.
Lena herself takes on a motherly role after taking Ira out of the hospital. She feeds her a Russian staple, simple kasha and condensed milk (it seems like that is all the community has), and shyly smiles for the first time in the film as she gives her the last flower delivered by the young sailor, telling Ira the flower is for her from “Pavlik.” When in their last night at the apartment the lights go out, and Ira predictably breaks down, Lena takes her outside, where she holds her in her arms, as they are both illuminated by the green Northern lights over the horizon. The slow tilt-shot from the women up to the lights gives hope that finally Lena will be freed of her guilt and shame by taking Ira to be cured in St. Petersburg. This seems to be a cautiously optimistic ending: shame may not save the world, but even if governments and countries cannot really be shamed, individuals can redeem themselves by saving one person at a time. The film is successfully rescued from incursions into melodrama or predictability by the excellent acting of all the major female characters, by a strong script and direction, and the believable, realistic details in dialogue and setting, and its moody yet luminous cinematography. The shining green Northern lights that might have seemed superficial in another film give the viewer a well-earned respite from the monochromatic, snow-covered vistas and eerily calm waters of the inhospitable North. The director himself screened the film for the town where it was shot and told this reviewer that the best compliment he received was the approval of the audience members who felt that their daily lives and existence were portrayed truthfully on the screen.
|Comment on this article on Facebook|
Stishova, Elena, “Klaustrofobiia. ‘Styd’, rezhisser Iusup Razykov,” Iskusstvo kino 8, 2013.
Shame, Russia 2013
Color, 90 minutes
Director: Yusup Razykov
Screenplay: Ekaterina Mavromatis, Yusup Razykov
Cinematography: Iurii Mikhailyshin
Music: Aleksei Artishevskii
Cast: Maria Semenova, Elena Korobeinikova, Helga Filippova, Seseg Hapsanova
Producer: Vladimir Malyshev, Andrei Malyshev
Production: Cultural Initiatives (Kul’turnye initsiativy)
Yusup Razykov: Shame (Styd, 2013)
reviewed by Vida Johnson © 2013