Issue 58 (2017)

Sarik Andreasian: The Earthquake (Zemletriasenie, 2016)

reviewed by Brian Kilgour© 2017

zemletriasenieDirector Sarik Andreasian currently occupies a fascinating, and enviable, place within the Russian film industry. After gaining renown following the box office success of Office Romance: Our Time (Sluzhebnyi roman: Nashe vremia, 2011), his sequel to El’dar Riazanov’s Soviet classic Office Romance, Andreasian went on to make several well-performing comedies, such as Pregnant (Beremennyi, 2011) and What Men Do (Chto tvoriat muzhchiny, 2013). Each of these films had a budget of approximately $2 million and saw box office grosses of $10 million and above. Given the relative success of these low budget comedies, Andreasian was put at the helm of increasingly big budget films, including American Heist (Ograblenie po-amerikanski, 2014), featuring Adrien Brody, and The Defenders (Zashchitniki, 2017), Russia’s analogue to The Avengers and Justice League. From a business perspective, Sarik Andreasian has the appeal of a Joss Whedon or James Gunn, directors known for success with low-budget comedies who have been given larger products with wider appeal.

zemletriasenieAndreasian’s The Earthquake is designed to become an Oscar submission. Its focus on a tragic historical event and its impact on the intertwined lives of unrelated individuals feature multiple traits of films that are typically considered for Academy Awards, such as Crash (2004) and Titanic (1997). Unfortunately, studio representatives failed to submit the required documentation on time for the film to be considered as Armenia’s official submission to the 2017 Academy Awards; specifically, producers failed to provide documentation to prove that an appropriate percentage of the film’s crew was Armenian. Yet in some ways this was a fortunate mishap, as the film attracted media attention from the failed submission and would have had almost no shot of receiving a nomination for Best Foreign Language Film; rather than being one of dozens of submissions that fail to receive a nomination, it stood out as the only film to be submitted too late.

The Earthquake is centered around the events of the 1988 Armenian Earthquake that resulted in 25,000 deaths and 130,000 injuries; it destroyed the city of Spitak and affected much of Leninakan (modern day Gyumri), and Kirovakan (modern-day Vanadzor). The film follows two main characters whose lives were irrevocably connected by a car wreck that occurred 8 years prior to the Armenian earthquake. Konstantin (Konstantin Lavronenko) was found to be responsible for the deaths of Robert’s (Viktor Stepanyan) family and was sentenced to eight years in prison; Robert was orphaned and cared for by Senik (Sos Janibekyan). On the day of the earthquake, Robert is preparing for the release of his parents’ killer, while Konstantin is flying back to Leninakan to see his wife and two children for the first time in eight years. The two men are brought together by tragic coincidence when Robert stops a vehicle for assistance while attempting to save a young woman, Lilit (Tatev Hovakimyan), who has been trapped under rubble. The film also follows Erem (Mikhail Pogosyan), an older gentleman who is in conflict with his family after rejecting his daughter, Gayane, and her fiancé, Varuzh, for a pregnancy prior to wedlock.

zemletriasenieThrough each of these storylines, the film demonstrates its commitment to the themes of family forged by tragedy and the power of forgiveness. The opening moments depict the car crash that tear Robert and Konstantin from their families. Eight years later, Robert is still haunted by the death of his family and plans to go look Konstantin in the eyes once he arrives in Leninakan. Senik gives him a gun, warning Robert that Konstantin has sat in prison for 8 years and could attack him. The question of blame is the center of dramatic tension between these two characters. Following the earthquake, both individuals are isolated from their families and brought together to save Lilit. Robert, who had already lost his biological family, loses his connection to Senik spiritually after he witnesses evidence that Senik has been looting, rather than assisting the trapped. Konstantin’s daughter is killed during the initial earthquake and his wife is fatally injured. In essence, both characters are further isolated from loved ones and thrown together by tragedy. Konstantin comes into Robert’s life as a figure of authority and paternal confidence, directing efforts to extract Lilit and others from the rubble.

zemletriasenieAfter realizing who Konstantin is, Robert asks Lilit what she would do if she met the people responsible for her family’s deaths. She replies, “Sometimes when you’re searching for someone to blame, no one is guilty.” In the climactic shootout over a vehicle at the end of the film, Konstantin is shot, sacrificing himself to save Lilit. With his last breath, Konstantin confesses that he knows who Robert is and the two forgive each other, becoming family as Robert and Lilit adopt Konstantin’s son.
The themes of family and forgiveness extend to Erem’s arc as well. After closing his doors to Gayane and Varuzh, Erem loses his wife during the earthquake and only opens his heart to his newly born grandson after he learns of the heroic death of Varuzh. He openly confesses, “I’m guilty before you,” while standing before Varuzh’s remains. Yet, in a refreshing attempt at complexity, some survivors fail to find family or closure. Armen, a man who loves Lilit unrequitedly, is shell-shocked by the events of the earthquake and, although he tirelessly carries bodies to be buried, is unable to accept Lilit’s apologies for her coldness at the end of the film.

The theme of forgiveness is an interesting choice, given the historical context of the film. Following the earthquake, many experts claimed that much of the devastation was due to poor building practices and dilapidated infrastructure in Spitak and Leninakan. Coming just two years after Chernobyl, the Armenian earthquake gave additional impetus to those questioning resource allotment and decision-making in the Soviet Union. The film focuses on the strengthening of social bonds through sacrifice and makes direct references to rates of adoption and foreign aid in the wake of the earthquake. As such, one is drawn to see Lilit’s statement on blame as a plea to resist finding someone to blame (i.e. those responsible for allowing Armenian infrastructure to decay to such an extent) and focus on the heroes who rushed to rescue those trapped and adopt those without families.

The film’s focus on intertwined individual experiences benefits from the film’s mimetic choices of shots and camera positions. Nearly every shot is determined by a character’s perspective; even the overhead shots of buildings collapsing during the earthquake are framed by Konstantin’s view from his seat on the plane. The most stylized scene in the film is the opening credits sequence, which follows a crate of apples via cuts from location to location; this scene serves to introduce the audience to minor characters that appear later and show daily life in Leninakan. The film utilizes slow motion in one sequence during the earthquake in which a child is thrown from a collapsing building into his mother’s arms. These stylized scenes jar with the remainder of the film, yet are minor enough that they do not significantly unbalance the film’s tone.

zemletriasenieIndeed, The Earthquake is remarkably even in tone throughout its runtime, particularly considering the director’s history of comedic films. Still, the film relies on clichéd musical and cinematic foreshadowing at various points, particularly in the scene following the prologue. Robert awakens after the nightmare of the car crash and rises to gaze out over the city while the camera pans behind him. Inside his apartment, the soundtrack carries only his breathing and the muted sounds of children playing; once he steps outside, an ominous tone picks up as Robert looks out of the city. The film then jump cuts to Robert rushing into his courtyard to an upbeat folksong, beginning the sequence following the apples mentioned above. This jump cut results in an abrupt tonal switch reminiscent of American thrillers and horror films. Following the earthquake, the film remains focused on its themes of sacrifice, family, and forgiveness and rarely indulges in humor. One character in particular vocalizes his psychological struggle with the aftermath of the earthquake by resorting to tasteless jokes that are not intended to be funny. After being criticized for joking in the midst of death, he pleads that his own guests lie dead and that it is his own decision when to joke and when not to joke.

It is difficult to parse out exactly what The Earthquake is trying to be, besides a film that looks like an Oscar contender. If it is attempting to stand as a monument to victims of the 1988 earthquake, then it resorts too frequently to spectacle and emotional exploitation of suffering. If it is trying to make a political statement regarding forgiveness for the infrastructural issues that worsened the severity of the earthquake, it does not directly confront this issue. And if it is meant to celebrate the outpouring of international aid, support, and adoption in the wake of the earthquake, the film focuses too closely on Armenia and only discusses these issues in the closing title cards. Likely, because the film is attempting to check all of the above boxes, it feels unfocused and at its worst, exploitative. Throughout its runtime, the film never transcends its existence as a product and in the end, this reviewer had difficulty determining what was being sold.

Brian Kilgour
University of Wisconsin-Madison

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The Earthquake, Armenia, 2016
Color, 101 min.
Director: Sarik Andreasian
Script: Sergei Iudakov, Aleksei Gravitskii, Arsen Danielian, Grant Barsegian
Producers: Gevond Andreasian, Sarik Andreasian, Ruben Dishdishian, Aram Movsesian
Cinematographer: Iurii Korobeinikov
Composer: Nayko
Production Design: David Dadunashvili
Editor: Georgii Isaakian
Cast: Konstantin Lavronenko, Mariia Mironova, Viktor Stepanyan, Tatev Hovakimyan, Michael Pogosyan, Michael Janibekyan, Sos Janibekyan, Armen Markaryan, Arevik Martirosyan, Asmik Aleksanyan
Production: Mars Media Entertainment

Sarik Andreasian: The Earthquake (Zemletriasenie, 2016)

reviewed by Brian Kilgour© 2017

Updated: 2017