Issue 56 (2017)

Alena Davydova: Ivan (2016)

reviewed by Elena Monastireva-Ansdell © 2017

Falling and Burning and Flying Again

In her desire to make “an ordinary film about ordinary people” (Manzhula 2016) Alena Davydova, born in a small town in Chuvashia, brings a fresh perspective to the Moscow-centric Russian film industry. Her full-length feature debut Ivan came out at the St Petersburg Sever Film Company, the successor of the famous Studio for the First and Experimental Film (PiEF) founded in 1989 by Aleksei Iu. German and Svetlana Karmalita to nurture emerging talent. The studio selected Davydova’s project for support in 2013 when her script for Ivan received the main prize for “best contemporary story” at the eighth national competition of family-oriented scripts “Faith. Hope. Love.” The film premiered at Kinotavr, the Open Russian Film Festival, in 2016. A rather straightforward drama about a day in the life of two ordinary people in a humble provincial town, Ivan stands out among the more usual fare of flashy commercial productions or complex art house features. This emphatic simplicity has won over the hearts of many Russian bloggers, but it also runs the risk of making the story too obvious and banal for the more sophisticated viewer looking for deeper social and psychological analyses. Despite her “quiet scrutiny” of her ordinary characters that is “devoid of both special effects and speculation on viewers’ emotions,” Davydova is not a new Vasilii Shukshin, as one film critic at the Kinotavr press conference suggested (Uminova 2016). Nor is she a new Larisa Sadilova, another prominent filmmaker from Russia’s provinces whose dedication to provincial Russia is paired with rigorous social critique. That said, Davydova’s compelling casting, convincing dialogue, and semi-detective plot in Ivan will keep many viewers engaged throughout the feature.

ivanThe film tells a story of the middle-aged ambulance driver, Ivan, who lives alone in his run-down apartment. One day, when taking out the trash, Ivan bumps into a nine-year-old girl, Tonia, who says she came from a nearby town to visit her grandmother. Tonia unceremoniously asks Ivan for food and shelter because her grandmother is gone and she cannot get in touch with her. Ivan unwillingly assumes responsibility for the opinionated girl and her lapdog, and the unlikely trio embarks on an eventful day filled with hopes, disappointments, and revelations. The viewer gradually assembles Ivan’s traumatic life story by observing his interactions with Tonia and other acquaintances as he scrambles to put together a decent outfit to wear to his daughter’s sixteenth birthday. Ivan’s life “has turned upside down” when, after a bad helicopter accident that involved “falling and burning,” the formerly intrepid pilot with a zest for life has acquired a fear of heights and failed to adjust to his new, earth-bound existence. Ivan’s current life drags on as a pale shadow of his past adventures, and both his family and friends have written him off and moved on. Only a few keep urging him to turn his life around by taking up flying again, thereby aggravating his guilt over his seeming inability to overcome his acrophobia. Others, who still care, offer doubtful half-solutions like moving to a better place or simply moving to avoid the depressing status quo. Predictably for a film with a broken adult and a precocious but compassionate child, Tonia is the only person who eventually manages to turn Ivan “right side up.” Parallel to Ivan’s narrative, the viewer puts together pieces of Tonia’s puzzle: a much more intriguing but poorly developed story of a child traveling alone, wandering the streets away from her hometown in search of a lost parent, a “brave and strong pilot.” At some point in the film, Ivan must live up to this idealized vision if he wants to preserve his growing bond with Tonia, his second chance at getting fatherhood, family, and life right.

Kirill Polukhin, one of the leading actors of the Tovstonogov Bolshoi Drama Theater in St Petersburg, plays the title character with a believable balance of natural charisma and low self-esteem: reminded at each step that he is an “eagle” turned “penguin,” Ivan nevertheless projects an innate openness and charm that explain the genuine attachment to him of both Tonia and Irina, a woman who loves him despite (or perhaps because) of his current “unmanly” weakness and lack of ambition. Polukhin’s wider popularity based on television series in which he is routinely typecast as a “charismatic scoundrel” (Bobrova 2016) curiously augments his role in Ivan. The palpable chemistry between the seasoned actor and his nine-year-old acting partner, Polina Gukhman, results in compelling acting and dialogue that, in the words of reviewers, make for an “organic” and “soulful” viewing experience that is accomplished “in one breath” (“Ivan” 2016).

Judging by the reviews, much of Ivan’s appeal to ordinary viewers comes from its preoccupation with the daily relationships and concerns of average Russians who try to make the best of their lives by operating within their personal support networks. Even though Ivan feels lost and defeated, viewers get a sense that he is at home in his caring provincial community where everybody knows him and is ready to help him and give him yet another chance. Ivan’s “putting together” of an outfit and a vehicle to attend his daughter’s birthday party evokes the Russian saying celebrating the power of community,“ many donated threads make a shirt for the shirtless man.” Ivan eventually gets fitted out in an elegant nineteenth-century suit borrowed from a children’s theater. The town itself, with its prominently displayed church cupolas and old architecture interspersed with lived-in residential buildings, serves as a sturdy foundation for the protagonist. Its soulfulness comes through in the contemplative guitar soundtrack and the white fluff of cottonwood trees floating in the air.

The film juxtaposes this nostalgically old-fashioned and supportive small-town setting with the alienating nearby city to which Ivan’s former wife, Olga (Anastasiia Mel’nikova), moved with their daughter Sonia after Ivan’s accident. Sonia’s birthday party takes place in a flashy club with loud pop music and doormen who block Ivan’s access to the building. When Olga comes outside, she informs Ivan that Sonia has already left. Dressed in an expensive gown with a long train, Olga barely seems to notice Ivan or his bruised face that previously had solicited unfailing sympathetic comments from everybody in his hometown. Ivan nervously jokes about his invisibility to Olga by asking her to bring him a face mask “as scary as can be” from her impending work trip to Africa.

While the provincial town setting helps humanize Ivan, genuine viewer identification with the protagonist’s midlife crisis comes from the way his story is refracted through the compassionate nine-year-old’s eyes. As a child, Tonia is hypersensitive to the everyday micro-humiliations that have become customary for Ivan. Her often overblown reactions to the crassness of interactions in the adult world re-sensitize viewers’ perceptions and evoke sympathy for Ivan even where his self-absorbed immersion in his trauma clearly hurts others. At the same time, Tonia’s blunt questions about Ivan’s life act as correctives to his morally dubious behaviors, particularly his irresponsible treatment of his family and women. In fact, several scenes frame Tonia as Ivan’s suppressed conscience, such as the episode in which Ivan, in a close-up shot facing the viewer, tries to romance a young nurse whom he obviously had let down before while Tonia’s small, out-of-focus figure watches silently from far behind. As the understanding between Tonia and Ivan grows over the course of the film, Tonia moves from the periphery to the center of his mental awareness. In the scene right before Tonia’s departure, when Tonia and Ivan lie down to sleep, he on the floor facing the viewer and she on the couch in the back of the room, the reflected light from a window on Tonia’s face, the monotonous drum of the rain, and Ivan’s calm answers to Tonia’s quiet questions, all recreate a setting suggestive of a psychotherapy session.

ivanWhile Tonia’s compassionate perspective goes a long way in making Ivan’s personal crisis relatable and instructive, she cannot remove its ultimate contradictions and triviality. Without grounding in a wider social, or even deeper personal context, Ivan’s trauma remains a simplistically abstract tale of falling and burning and then flying again. The importance of the accident as a critical demarcating line between the “brave and strong” and the “fearful and weak” Ivan is rather confusing, because it is during his “brave and strong” days that Ivan betrayed his wife and daughter by sleeping with Tonia’s mother, Marina, while on a heroic rescue mission and therefore at his highest “eagle” appeal to women. Surprisingly, Marina admires the man who romanced and then abandoned her to bring up the resulting child on her own. Now married to an abusive alcoholic, she seems to be trapped in a pattern of exploitative relationships, but the viewer is not meant to really care, because this is not her story. We are guided to root for Tonia to rescue Ivan from his misery and for him to have another chance at fatherhood. Another pre-accident affair transpires when Ivan returns to his helicopter station and a woman dispatcher regretfully informs him that she got married. Even as a “penguin,” Ivan continues to attract and mistreat women. While benefitting from the care of the devoted Irina, he continues to flirt with the young nurse who moved on to another relationship but is still visibly attracted to Ivan. Ivan’s almost uncontrollable seductive effect on women seems to be both his defining feature and, at least to this viewer, his major downfall. It appears that the filmmaker couldn’t think of a better way of demonstrating Ivan’s personal appeal. The ending clearly indicates that Ivan has overcome his fear of heights and will return to flying, but it offers no resolution to the problem of his irresponsible relationships with women.

Instead of investing in psychological depth to articulate its message about human trauma and ways of overcoming it, the film relies on a series of obvious metaphors illustrating where Ivan went wrong and how he can get back on track. On the way to Sonia’s birthday party, Ivan rather inexplicably veers off from a main road to a dirt path in a cornfield. The meaning of this detour as commentary on Ivan’s situation becomes clear only when his car gets stuck in a rut and he falls into a muddy puddle trying to get the car out. Ivan’s deterioration from an “eagle” to a “penguin” is predictably, albeit humorously and somewhat creatively, reinforced in the children’s theater director’s choice to cast Ivan as a villainous “old-man spider” despite his protests that he is more convincing as a heroic “mosquito-liberator,” both characters in Kornei Chukovskii’s popular children’s poem about a she-fly who falls prey to the spider and is rescued by the mosquito. It is unlikely that the intention in this episode is to refer to Ivan’s exploitative treatment of women; rather, it illustrates the immensity of Ivan’s fall in the vocabulary accessible to children, which is later played out in the final dialogue between Ivan and Tonia. Finally, Auktsyon’s short song “Falling and Melting” that provides the guitar soundtrack for the film, appears in the final credits as a word-for-word summary of the film’s plot—highlighting how uncomplicated it really is. These and other narrative redundancies may have been intended to make the film comprehensible to the average viewer, but they also expose the beginning filmmaker’s lack of confidence in her ability to tell a compelling story.

Davydova’s project started under the title Tonia, and only later did the focus shift to Ivan (Manzhula 2016). It would be curious to see what the film would have been like with Tonia as the central character. Her background story, even as it is briefly outlined in Ivan, seems to contain a potential for greater psychological depth and insight.

Elena Monastireva-Ansdell
Colby College

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Works Cited

Bobrova, Natal’ia (2014). “Kirill Polukhin: Vy na menia iz-za britoi bashki tak smotrite?” Trud, January 15.

Ivan (2016). Obsuzhdenie.”

Manzhula, Kristina (2016). “Alena Davydova: Mne khotelos’ sniat’ prostoe kino pro prostykh liudei.” ProfiCinema, June 8.

Uminova, Nellia (2016). “Press-konferentsiia konkursnogo fil’ma ‘Ivan.’” (40:45).

Ivan, Russia, 2016
Color, 88 minutes
Director: Alena Davydova
Script: Alena Davydova
DoP: Artem Dzharaian
Production Design: Mariia Morozova (III), Dmitrii Malich-Kon’kov
Cast: Kirill Polukhin, Polina Gukhman, Anastasiia Mel’nikova, Liudmila Boiarinova, Sergei Iatseniuk, Denis Portnov, Agrafena Petrovskaia, Ruslan Ibragimov, Tat’iana Zueva, Anna Ekaterininskaia
Producers: Aleksei L’vovich, Aleksei German Jr.
Production: Sever Film Company

Alena Davydova: Ivan (2016)

reviewed by Elena Monastireva-Ansdell © 2017