Issue 53 (2016)

Alisher Khamdamov: A Fatal Step (Otzvuk, 2015)

reviewed by Peter Rollberg© 2016

otzvukThe many ups and downs of Alisher Khamdamov’s career merit an article of their own, including an analysis of his regrettably slim filmography that started in 1973—the year of his diploma feature—and ended in 2015—the year of his last film and his passing. Suffice it to say that Khamdamov belonged to Lev Kuleshov’s last masterclass at the Film Institute VGIK, was systematically shunned at Uzbekfilm in the 1970s and 1980s, was forced to accept motley jobs to make ends meet, and, when finally given a chance to direct a full-length feature in Russia, passed away shortly before its completion. This final picture, whose title refers to the song that accompanies its last episode (“She made a step…”), is not only as intriguing as it is aesthetically ambitious, but also tragic as an unforeseen swan song.

Produced on a shoestring budget from Svetlana Karillon’s play Medea and Pan, A Fatal Step blends elements of chamber drama with moral parable. The plot is simple: Rita, a self-confident yet dissatisfied woman in her early 40s, visits her younger sister Nina in her modest rural home. She also brings along her promiscuous teenage daughter Lena. Both Rita and Lena make aggressive sexual advances toward Vitia (Nina’s husband), a chubby lackluster loser and father to their two children. Eventually, Vitia awakens from his somnambulistic state and decides to leave Nina, move to the city, get a job, and never return to his wife’s self-made idyll. When Nina realizes that his decision is final, she puts rat poison in the soup and kills the entire family and herself.

otzvukA Fatal Step is remarkable not because of its morbidly grotesque story, but because of the way in which Khamdamov visualizes it. Time and time again, characters appear in their childhood—strolling in a meadow, diving in the river—and magically emerge as adults, as if there was an underlying genetic inevitability in their current actions. This constant simultaneity of childhood and adulthood in the film is not just a device of non-chronological narration; it also indicates a predetermination in life that may be impossible to escape. The characters seem to be preprogrammed and, as a result, do not base their behavior on the necessities of actual reality, but rather on an inner mechanism that is driving them. Conspicuously, Khamdamov does not create a distance between the viewer and these characters: particularly intriguing and uncomfortable are numerous close-ups of their hands and necks, often seen from behind. A number of scenes using asynchronous image and sound (such as large empty vistas combined with crowd cacophony) seem to point to this chronic misperception of reality by the people inhabiting it. The film’s colors feature a disturbing yellowish and grayish tonality, as if filters had been used throughout, subtly conveying a sense of eeriness and doom, despite the grandiose beauty of repeatedly featured nature shots, ranging from compositions of garden flowers to majestic landscapes crossed by a train.

Dominated by the configuration of the two sisters and their starkly different personalities and worldviews, the film depicts their dependents—Nina’s husband and Rita’s daughter—as provocatively passive, lacking direction and purpose. The only character with a firm moral foundation is Nina. Her life rests on the principle of self-sacrifice; otherwise, the barely stable order of things will not continue to hold and function. The sexually frustrated Rita deliberately rocks the family boat, as if to test its firmness. Vitia is frustrated as well, resisting any kind of useful work with maddening passivity but unable to break free from Nina’s motherly care.

otzvukThe character constellation suggests that no meaningful solution is in sight—all participants are set in their own ways and are incapable of even the slightest change or adjustment. However, this unmistakably Chekhovian situation, which defines the stifling atmosphere of many scenes, is regularly subverted by two visual motifs punctuating the narrative: the image of a huge dilapidated church and documentary footage of clashes between protesters and police. Both motifs are not directly related to the story and its characters, but they carry an ominous symbolism. While the dialogues contain no explicit allusions to these motifs, one may only speculate that the former points to the abandonment of divine order, while the latter signals a brooding discontent in Russian society as a whole. Viewed in a classical Chekhovian framework, the reoccurring landscape motif signifying primordial natural order and beauty underscores the characters’ self-obsessed pettiness and their ignorance of any higher meaning in life.

otzvukThe film’s weakest aspect is the performances. Although the adult parts are played by experienced professionals (Svetlana Drachenina as Nina, Ol’ga Lysak as Rita, Ivan Mokhovikov as Vitia, and Mariia Palei as Lena), false intonations and insufficiently nuanced interactions abound. One can imagine what the intended effect of these scenes was, but their realization falls short of their potential. The camera work, however, compensates to a large degree for the lack of psychological contour, contrasting the triviality of the conflicts against the loftiness of the natural world. Thus, A Fatal Step never comes across as the adaptation of a theater production—its visual fluidity is purely cinematic, flawlessly integrating the performers in authentic natural spaces.

Whatever the shortcomings of his last film may be, Khamdamov does manage to capture a sense of overwhelming disorder and depression both in individual lives and in society as a whole. While the humble Nina is able to create a seemingly safe haven of family harmony, she willfully ignores the characters’ resistance to this imposed harmony. The sudden appearance of the external aggressors is too strong for her to withstand. Nina remains alone in her quiet struggle for moderation, love, and decency, and when she realizes the hopelessness of her efforts, she destroys this world rather than accepting the dissolution of its order. Even then, her protest is silent – she merely observes the doomed family consuming her deadly soup.

Peter Rollberg
The George Washington University

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A Fatal Step, Russia, 2015
Director: Alisher Khamdamov
Script: Svetlana Karillon, Alisher Khamdamov, Sergei Kudriavtsev
DoP Konstantin Rassolov
Composer Aleksandr Prusov
Cast: Svetlana Drachenina, Ivan Mokhovikov, Ol'ga Lysak, Mariia Palei, Igor' Kartashev, Andrei Iakimov, Les'ia Kulikova, Egor Potapov
Producers: Luiza Boiarskaia, Galina Sorochkina, Luiza Khamdamova, Sergei Kudriavtsev, Ol’ga Nikiforova

Alisher Khamdamov: A Fatal Step (Otzvuk, 2015)

reviewed by Peter Rollberg© 2016

Updated: 03 Jul 16