Issue 52 (2016)

Ivan Vyrypaev: Salvation (Spasenie, 2015)

reviewed by Emily Hillhouse© 2016

spasenieSalvation, Ivan Vyrypaev’s most recent cinematic outing, made it on to several lists of Russian films to be anticipated in 2015. However, despite earning a best actress award for Polina Grishina at the Open Russian Film Festival Kinovatr (Sochi), it has not received much international attention since its release. Viewers familiar with Vyrypaev’s debut project Euphoria (Eiforiia, 2006) and his two subsequent films (Oxygen/Kislorod 2008; Delhi Dance/Tanets Deli, 2012), will not be surprised to find in Salvation a film, which is challenging to watch, both literally and philosophically. The pacing of the film is at times excruciatingly slow, with long periods of silence punctuated by awkwardly dubbed philosophical discussions. The pacing and scripting undoubtedly serve to highlight the protagonist’s isolation and alienation, but do not make an easy viewing experience.

spasenieThe film tells the story of Anna, an ethereally beautiful young nun, who travels to Tibet to work in an isolated Catholic cathedral. At the opening of the film, we see her tear-stained face upturned in prayer as she prepares to leave her home in Poland. Her slow journey to the airport is punctuated by the sounds of modern civilization — cell phones, cars and the soft beating of drums. A hand-held camera watches as she checks in, falls asleep on the flight and lands at her remote destination.

Upon arriving at the hotel, she is told that bad weather in the mountains has blocked off access to the cathedral, so she will have to wait several days before continuing her journey. Struggling to mask her disappointment, she prepares to make the best of her situation. The camera watches as she carefully unpacks each item in her bag and rearranges the room to create a makeshift altar for some wrapped artifacts that she has brought with her.

spasenieAnna walks around the town and observes the signs of other religions — stopping to examine prayer wheels and golden Buddha statues, as well stopping to listen to the call to prayer at a mosque. Her facial expressions are carefully neutral. She considers buying herself another black dress.

Back at the hotel, she suffers from altitude sickness. The viewers get their first view of the woman beneath the nun’s habit as she lies on her bed and vomits in the toilet, dressed only in underwear and a grey shirt. The only soundtrack is the sound of the wind. Finally emerging from a detailed examination of her illness, the camera watches as she unwraps one of the artifacts on her altar: a gold communion cup.

spasenieAnna goes on a hike and sits in the sun. She looks at prayer flags and visits a monastery where she is clearly made uncomfortable by a large statue of Buddha. She watches a group of monks praying. Afterwards, she goes to sit outside where she meets a young woman. The young woman, who lounges in her peasant blouse, large jewelry and scarf-wrapped hair, is the epitome of the expat seeking spiritual enlightenment. She challenges Anna’s life choices and aggressively explores human nature and the purpose of religion. She claims that people are like vacuum cleaners sucking up the filth of the world around them and that religion is one of the ways that they can throw the filth out. But she believes that people should stop sucking up filth in the first place. She disagrees with whatever observations Anna makes, even when Anna merely repeats what she has said. Anna excuses herself and leaves.

spasenieAnna sleeps in her bra and panties. Then she goes outside wearing a sweater and wrapped in a tablecloth. Dressed in this unusual attire, she meets a young musician. He is shocked that she has never heard of the band “U2.” He invites her back to his room to hear him play, but she is reluctant to follow a strange man to his room. The musician is now shocked that Anna lives her life in such fear, and she admits that she is having trouble adjusting to the outside world. He tells her the outside world and the inside world are the same. She is dubious, but she goes to his room and listens to him play.

Anna now happily returns to the market to shop. This time she actually buys herself a yellow wool hat and some hiking boots. She hitchhikes up into the mountains. The driver tells her that there are aliens in this area. Anna is undeterred, and spends the night outside on a hillside. Unexpectedly (for the viewers, at any rate), a flying saucer materializes in the dark night sky, glowing like the northern lights over the dark horizon. Anna, however, is no longer made uncomfortable by the strange and unexpected, and she sits, watching calmly as the ship scans her. She walks back to the hotel smiling, and receives news that she can finally go to the Catholic cathedral. Once she arrives, she cheerfully watches the mass and explores the Cathedral, both of which are steeped in the local culture, which had made her uncomfortable before. She now shows no negative reactions. She hands over the communion cup.

Outside again, she sits gazing upon the mountains and listening to the wind. A Russian photographer approaches her. He asks her if she has learned anything since coming to Tibet. She says yes. She has learned that God exists.

spasenieIn tone, Salvation is artfully realistic, giving the impression of a documentary or a very unusual reality TV program. This is not to suggest that the film is not beautifully shot, but rather that Vyrypaev constructed the film in such a way as to give the viewer the impression that they are witnessing mundane reality. This is both the film’s strength and its weakness. For mundane reality is only speciously interesting even when following an outrageous celebrity, and Anna’s journey is not precisely filled with action. Indeed, the culmination of her spiritual journey, her encounter with extraterrestrials, is presented with so little fanfare that the viewer is left vaguely bemused, but not terribly interested in what should be, at the very least, a rather wondrous episode in her journey of faith.

While shots of Anna’s exploration of the town have a documentary quality to them, her encounters with other humans were all very stagey and awkward, all the more so perhaps, because of the perceived reality of the other parts of the film. Aside from one brief conversation in Polish, all of the dialogue is in English, dubbed into Russian. The dubbing does serve to increase the viewer’s feelings of alienation, but if it was intended also to bring an extra quality of reality (through allowing the players to speak in their appropriate languages), it failed. It is hard to say for certain whether the lines or the delivery were at fault, but the result was that the illusion of reality was broken every time anybody spoke. Ultimately, despite being based on a true story, Salvation neither interests the viewer in Anna’s spiritual development, nor creates a convincing reality.

Emily Hillhouse
University of Texas, Austin

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Salvation, Russia, 2015
94 minutes, color
Director & Scriptwriter: Ivan Vyrypaev
Cinematography: Andrei Naidenov
Music Andrei Samsonov
Editing Marius Blinstrubas
Cast: Polina Grishina, Karolina Gruszka, Cazimir Liske, Vanchuk Fargo, Angchuk Phuntsok, Diana Zamojska, Father Edward, Ivan Vyrypaev
Producer:Sergei Zernov, Svetlana Kuchmaeva
Production: Gorky Film Studio, Valday Films

Ivan Vyrypaev: Salvation (Spasenie, 2015)

reviewed by Emily Hillhouse© 2016