Issue 47 (2015)

Aleksandr Kott: The Test (Ispytanie, 2014)

reviewed by Robert Bird© 2015

ispytanieKnown for his efforts in popular genres, most notably the war movie The Fortress of War (Brestskaia krepost’, 2010), as well as for his television serials, in The Test Aleksandr Kott sallies forth in a markedly new direction, clearly determined to make an impression in art cinema and on the festival circuit. Beautifully shot by Levan Kapanadze, the film studiously observes its signature gimmick: a full-length sound film without a single word of dialogue. Its prizes at the 25th Kinotavr festival (including the Grand Prix) and the Tokyo International Film Festival demonstrate that Kott’s calculations have paid off, even if the film never makes it into commercial distribution.

The film opens at an isolated home in the Central Asian steppe, where the young Dinara lovingly cares for her father Tolgat. The father seems to work as a shepherd; at least, he is shown using a trussed sheep as a pillow before transporting it across the dusty terrain in his pick-up truck. He is a veteran of the armed forces and, when a small white plane lands at the compound, gladly taxis it around; evidently he was a pilot. When her father returns drunk she puts him to bed, with echoes of Noah and his sons. The girl is courted by two suitors: a young local boy (Kaisyn), who arrives periodically on horseback; and the Russian photographer Maksim Smirnov (whose name we never hear in the film), who shows up for water when a bus breaks down within eyeshot. They become rivals, and even enjoy a brief punch-up over her, but she simply dowses them with a bucket of water. Eventually Maksim is installed at the house.

ispytanieThe film changes in tone when the family compound is attacked by security forces armed with a Geiger counter. Stripped naked and left in the cold rain, the father falls sick, is taken away for treatment, but dies and is buried by his daughter in a shallow grave. The film ends, abruptly, with an explosion that produces a mushroom cloud before blowing the house away. The final shot shows the sun creeping over the horizon, but then ducking back down, ashamed of what it sees.

With the slow pace of editing and no verbal explication, one’s attention is drawn to the stunning visual compositions: portraits, landscapes, still lives with objects, and tableaux vivants. One stunning composition articulates the turn from intimacy to geopolitics: during a storm the girl is viewed through a window against a wall map, her rain-dappled portrait suffused with the blue of the printed ocean. The compositions, like the film’s construction, are perfectly centered and relentlessly symmetrical; for all their poignancy, they are almost painfully legible.

ispytanieSeveral shots suggest an interest in problematizing the material production and consumption of images. Dinara turns the pages of a scrapbook containing collages made of dried leaves, including one of an airplane flying over the Moscow Kremlin. Maksim takes her photograph and then projects it, as a film-strip, onto the side of the house. His rather dim-witted physiognomy suddenly flowers into outright clowning, in a nod to the knowing eccentricity of Kott’s student short The Photographer (Fotograf, 1997), which also eschews language, but more as a stylization of silent film, à la Michel Hazanavicius’s The Artist (2011). Most suggestive, however, is the opening shot, which tracks over a bed of down and comes upon a miniature wooden bed frame; one can gauge its size by the pine needles it stands upon. The drama of scale continues in the use of bird’s-eye shots—of the truck bed, of a river in the landscape—which render the human world as toy-like or map-like, before zooming in for texture-rich close-ups of sheep’s wool, tree bark, or the characters’ faces.

If this all seems relatively predictable, it is because it has all been done before. For mysterious techno-contagion in Central Asia, see Aleksandr Sokurov’s Days of Eclipse (Dni zatmeniia, 1988) or even Tarkovsky’s Stalker (1979), originally set in Isfara, Tajikistan. See other films by the same two directors for the insertion of miniature sets into otherwise realistic mise-en-scènes. See Andrei Zviagintsev’s The Banishment (Izgnanie, 2007)for a floating, slow-paced allegory having some vaguely biblical relation to sexuality. See Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev (1966) and Sacrifice (Offret, 1986) for vows of silence and gnarled trees standing guard against invasion. See Lars von Trier’s Melancholia (2011) for the lesson in how to face cosmic calamity without abandoning one’s home.

ispytanieMost of all, though, The Test brought me back to Ali Khamraev’s Bo Ba Bu (2000), another largely mute drama set somewhere in Central Asia in an undetermined time, which also relates brute sexual desire to vague geo-political tensions. By refusing to individualize their characters with names or motivations; by paring their physical worlds down to minimal, almost ritualistic arrays of basic objects; by including gratuitous reference to world-historical events, both films activate the allegorical register really having anything to say in it.

To be fair, the film does provide suggestions of a much more specific historical frame: the first nuclear explosions at the test site near Semipalatinsk (now Semei) in Kazakhstan beginning in 1949. The truck, the radio, the copy of Izvestiia, the prominence of veterans—all seem consistent with the final years of Stalin’s rule. But the film refuses to commit to its historical frame, just as it refuses to endow the materiality of its world with material concern: the attractive textures remain decorative local color for the film’s mute allegorical ambition. One takes away from the film not its characters or its landscape, but rather the relentlessly square framing that reduces both to unequivocal but vacuous statements of fact. Instead of cinematic poetry, the film musters only elementary sentences on the order of: “This is Jane. See Jane run.” Unlike Aleksei Fedorchenko’s merry mash-ups of Ural-region folklore, Kott’s The Test strains to endow its allegorical material with metaphysical depth, resulting more in mute obliquity than pensive intensity. 

Robert Bird
University of Chicago

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The Test, Russia, 2014
Color, 95 minutes
Director Aleksandr Kott
Screenplay Aleksandr Kott
Cast Elena An, Danila Rassomakhin, Karim Pakachakov, Nariman Bekbulatov-Areshev
DoP Levan Kapanadze
Production Design, Costume Design Eduard Galkin
Music: Aleksei Aigi
Sound Filipp Lamshin
Editing Karolina Maciejewska
General Producer Igor’ Tolstunov
Producers Sergei Kozlov, Anna Kagarlitskaia
Production ProFIT

Aleksandr Kott: The Test (Ispytanie, 2014)

reviewed by Robert Bird© 2015