Issue 50 (2015)

Arsenii Gonchukov: The Son (Syn, 2015)

reviewed by Olga Kim© 2015

Arsenii Gonchukov’s The Son is an unusual film in many respects. Firstly, it was produced completely without state funding. As many Russian film critics have already pointed out, this is an extremely rare case for the current film industry in Russia. Even more surprisingly, it is Gonchukov's third feature-length film made independently—the fourth one, The Last Night (Posledniia noch’), also self-funded, was recently released. This uncommon case of self-funding is indicative of the contemporary affordability of film technology, on the one hand, and the filmmakers’ passion for their profession, on the other. The entire film crew worked for free or for the sake of experience, as it were. Despite the restricted budget and limited resources, The Son won the Grand Prix for the best feature film at the second significant Russian film festival “Window to Europe” (Okno v Evropu) in 2014. The same year, the film also won the best actor award at Kinoshok, the film festival held among CIS countries, as well as Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia. 

synokAlso unusual about this film is that the director is a poet. Perhaps one of the keys to enrich the viewing of The Son is to read this film as a poem, indeed, a visual poem infused with elements of Greek tragedy, Dostoevskian questions, and existentialist overtones. In his films all of these motifs are entwined into the texture of contemporary Russian life.  The Son explores the themes raised in Gonchukov’s previous two films—1210 and The Flight: Three Days After the Catastrophe (Polet: tri dnia posle katastrofy)—but renders them in a more restrained and minimalist manner.
All three films revolve around entangled family relationships in extreme circumstances that involve death, guilt, and forgiveness. In 1210 the main character is a former officer of the Afghan War. He is shown on the verge of insanity. His hallucinations and mental instability are partly caused by a sense of guilt about the death of his son, who was serving under his command in Afghanistan. The film mainly focuses on the indifference of the social system and the state that are responsible for this family tragedy. The main character cannot forgive the state’s irresponsibility concerning their sacrifice. In the second film, The Flight, the main character again has to deal with the death of family members. This time it is an airplane crash that takes the lives of his mother and five-year-old sister. The main character is torn between the desire for revenge against the pilot, who happens to be the only survivor, and his evolving love toward the pilot’s daughter, whom he approaches in the hospital to plot his revenge. If the trauma in 1210 spills into a social critique, in The Flight, the traumatic experience is mended by love and shared pain.

synokThe Son again deals with the traumatic experience of the loss of a loved family member and the desire to avenge this death. Compared to the two previous films, The Son provides a darker and more intense variation of the familiar issues by zooming-in on the fabric of the complex family relationship. The plot of the film is simple. The son, Andrei (Aleksei Chernykh), lives with his schizophrenic mother in a provincial town near Moscow. The father abandoned the family for a younger and a “healthier” wife. Andrei’s sister also left the family long ago. Left alone with the uneasy burden of taking care of his ill mother, Andrei nonetheless is determined to get money (even if it requires selling drugs) and take her to Germany for treatment (despite the bureaucratic obstacles that entail bribery and despite the awareness that the disease is incurable). This plan, however, will never come to fruition, and the audience is prepared for this outcome. The slow and melancholic camera movement, which lingers over empty frames, and Andrei’s neither good nor evil, ambiguously empty facial expression—all of these elements already hint at the futility of the attempt to escape. The mother dies when all the preparations to leave for Germany are finished.

synokSimilar to the main character in The Flight, the son is left alone to deal with his loss, but unlike in the previous film, nothing comes to fill this void: neither his lovely girlfriend, nor his careless family. The loss of the mother only aggravates his relationship with his father and leads to tragic consequences. An allusion to the tragic end, evocative of a patricide in a Greek tragedy, can be anticipated in the very beginning of the film. In the opening sequence we see a shot of an empty stage with pseudo-ancient columns in the background. Covered with snow and half-ruined, this opening set is reminiscent of an abandoned Greek amphitheater. When the half-naked athletic body of the main character enters this stage, the performance begins.

synokThe healthy state of Andrei’s body, however, belies his wounded and exhausted state of mind. Throughout the film the frequent close-ups of his ambiguous face emanate existential anxiety and emptiness. This state becomes even more evident after his mother’s death, which he can neither forget nor forgive. As the director writes in the pamphlet to the film, “The main character cannot forgive himself for the fate of the mother and her death. And as he cannot forgive himself, he cannot forgive anyone. He has lost this ability—to forgive. His love, without the ability to forgive becomes damnation....” No matter how hard he tries to escape this vicious circle of love without forgiveness, he is doomed. He returns back again and again, as in the merry-go-round, which he rides after his mother’s death, or as in the Ferris wheel present in the background when he meets his father. The looped music during that scene reinforces this sense of inability to escape the vicious circle. The fact that at the very end of the film he learns that he is going to be the father of a son— a perfectly happy ending, if only the film were not about patricide—deprives him of any chance to escape his merciless fate.

Despite the realism of the details of the story and of the images that constitute the drudgery of everyday life, the film as a whole is closer to a melancholic visual poem. Elliptical narrative construction, long contemplative pauses, repetition of visual imagery, as well as the story, prompt a viewer to watch the film as a visual poetic form that oscillates between the character’s internal state of mind and the cold of outside reality covered with indifferently falling snow.

Olga Kim
University of Pittsburgh

Comment on this article on Facebook

The Son, Russia, 2014
Black and white, 93 minutes
Director: Arsenii Gonchukov
Script: Arsenii Gonchukov
Cinematographer: Konstantin Rassolov
Production Design: Ekaterina Lapynina
Music: Stanislav Polesko
Producers: Arsenii Gonchukov, Vladimir Buzov, Sof’ia Madyarova, Larisa Dirina
Cast: Aleksei Chernych, Vadim Andreev, Elena Tonunts, Oksana Erdlei, Lidiia Omutnykh, Ianina Kogut, Valerii Karib’ian, Ol’ga Malakhova, Dmitrii Kur’ianov
Production: Arsenii Gonchukov

Arsenii Gonchukov: The Son (Syn, 2015)

reviewed by Olga Kim© 2015