Issue 59 (2018)

Kseniia Zueva: Nearest and Dearest (Blizkie, 2017)

reviewed by Otto Boele© 2018

Over the last five years or so, the “protection” of family life, and the traditional family in particular, has been a top priority of both the Russian state and the Russian Orthodox Church. Patriarch Kirill has rarely missed an opportunity to speak out against same-sex marriages and sound the alarm about the “severe crisis in family relations” which the world, “especially the West,” is witnessing today.[1] The appointment of Anna Kuznetsova as Russia’s new children’s ombudsman, in September 2016, is another telling sign in this respect; a highly religious woman and mother of six, Kuznetsova founded in 2015 the “pro-family” mammoth AOZS, a Kremlin-funded umbrella organization, whose main goal it is to strengthen the position of the traditional family in Russian society.[2]

blizkieWhatever one may think of such initiatives and the political agendas informing them, the conviction that there is something rotten about the current state of the Russian family is not restricted to Patriarch Kirill’s inner circle. Nearest and Dearest, Kseniia Zueva’s first full-length feature film, could easily be adduced as additional “evidence” that some kind of “pro-family” action is urgently required. Even if Zueva does not offer the clear-cut solution that some traditionalists would have preferred, she presents an unsettling diagnosis of modern family life, in which generational strife and matrimonial fatigue create a chilly and simultaneously explosive atmosphere. With its focus on the family’s daughter, the film inevitably calls to mind Vasilii Pichul’s epoch-making Little Vera (Malen’kaia Vera, 1988), although this time the parents appear to be better educated and some characters display a nodding acquaintance with the fundamentals of the Orthodox faith. Zueva’s film is not without glimmers of hope, or even moments of reconciliation and genuine affection, but anyone allergic to a semblance of naturalism is likely to discard Nearest and Dearest as yet another instance of chernukha, that “unfortunate” legacy of perestroika-era cinema. It is small wonder that Zueva’s application for funding with the Ministry of Culture was unsuccessful and the film was eventually produced without any support from the Russian state.

blizkieAlmost ostentatiously, Nearest and Dearest is about the most average Russian family imaginable, consisting of a husband (Fima), his wife (Katia), and their two adolescent children (Ania and Andrei). In fact, the family is so ordinary that we never learn their last name or what city they live in. It could be in some newly built district in Moscow, but then, St Petersburg or Nizhnii Novgorod would be equally plausible. The problems and frustrations with which the family struggles are also anything but extraordinary: Fima is a moderately successful businessman who routinely cheats on his wife; Katia is an icy music teacher who intimidates her pupils, but then holds them up as models of diligence and dedication to her no-good daughter Ania, an insecure and somewhat obese seventeen-year-old who suffers from bulimia. Andrei resents being lectured by his father so much that he prefers to roam the streets at night or go out binge-drinking with a classmate. Adding to the tense atmosphere is the presence of a fifth family member, Katia’s rapidly deteriorating 86-year-old mother, whom the parents would like to put into a nursing home.

One way or another, all family members try to escape from this intolerable situation, either by attempting suicide (the mother) or by physically leaving the apartment (the father, the children), but the surrogate homes they find never present themselves as viable alternatives. Having won the respect of her peers by smoking fancy cigarettes and showing off her expensive nail polish (bought with money she stole from her mother), Ania even has a brief thing going with “leader of the pack,” Dania, who later reveals himself to be a spineless Casanova with no genuine intention to support her. Fima, the father, comes closest to leaving the family when he breaks into an incensed monologue accusing his wife of failing to “raise a normal family” and calling for an immediate divorce. The prospect of shacking up with his considerably younger mistress, however, and the confrontation with Katia’s suicide attempt (basically a cry for attention) force him to reconsider his rash decision: but for how long? Begging her “not to do that ever again,” Fima tenderly, but imposingly hugs his wife from behind, arms around her neck, as if threatening to strangle her the very next moment.

blizkieThe only person to succeed in escaping the apartment permanently is the grandmother, whose reasons for doing so remain obscure. Whether she can no longer stand the fighting, resents the idea of spending her last days in a nursing home, or considers herself a burden to the well-being of the family—she walks out the door one cold winter day and disappears. Her absence is not discovered until the next day when, for once, the family is having a peaceful breakfast and the father magnanimously suggests that Granny join them. A search ensues, but with no result, and the mystery of the grandmother’s disappearance is never disclosed. One of the last scenes shows the family standing in an old cemetery in the spring, while a train rushes by in the background. The final shot of the train’s interior reveals the grandmother as the only passenger, presumably on her way to the hereafter.

Although the film is certainly not short of emotional excess, it is the characters’ almost Chekhovian miscommunication and their misreading of each other’s feelings that reveal the true drama in this story. When one of Katia’s pupils bursts into tears, the viewer doubts whether it is because the poor girl has finally internalized the meaning of the sentimental lyrics she is singing; her teacher’s cynical remarks a moment earlier seem to be the more likely cause. Even more embarrassing is Fima’s clumsily romantic attempt to make it up to Katia, just minutes after she has cut her wrists, by driving her to “some” karaoke bar and performing Aleksandr Serov’s tear-jerker “I Love You to Tears.” Rather than appreciating it, Katia endures this sentimental male-chauvinist gesture, patiently sipping her cocktail and wondering why all the regular clients seem to know her husband.

blizkieIt is precisely through these moments of emotional clumsiness that the characters and the whole film work convincingly. Fima likes to think of himself as the family’s main breadwinner (no definite proof of which is provided) and considers bringing up children to be the duty of his wife. Even so, he feels responsible for preparing Ania for another nasty encounter with her mother: “You go in and give her a hug.” His wish to have a “normal family,” which he so casually expresses on numerous occasions, does not necessarily deny the authenticity of that desire. Similarly, when Ania apologizes to her so-called friends for “that idiot,” Andrei, we understand that she is not genuinely ashamed of her brother, but anxious to keep her good standing by siding with her classmates.

The ingredients of a disturbed relationship between the parents and the disappearance of a family member inevitably invite a comparison with Andrei Zviagintsev’s Loveless (Neliubov’, 2017) but, on closer inspection, the similarities are mostly artificial. In terms of cinematography Nearest and Dearest is an esthetically unpretentious, if very effective low-budget production, in which long takes are used to capture a character’s uneasiness or embarrassment. For example, when Fima and Katia report Grandma as missing at the police station, their faces are framed in a prolonged two-shot that registers every emotion. This is a far cry from Zviagintsev’s “poetic” long takes, in which humans may be completely absent. More importantly, Nearest and Dearest is as much about the trappings of family life and adolescents exploring alternatives selves as it is about a family growing closer together after the loss of a relative. Without turning the film into a sentimental feel-good story, the cautiously optimistic end shows some kind of rapprochement between mother and daughter, and father and son, suggesting that the Russian family has a future.


Notes

1] See the recording of Patriarch Kirill’s visit to the city Duma in Moscow on March 29, 2016.

2] AOZS stands for Assotsiatsiia organizatsii po zashchite sem’i.

Otto Boele
University of Leiden

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Nearest and Dearest, Russia, 2017
Color, 133 minutes
Director: Kseniia Zueva
Screenplay: Kseniia Zueva
Cinematography: Mikhail Vikhrov
Music: Mariia Zhulanova
Editors: Boris Mnukhin, Andrei Cherkasov
Cast: Nadezhda Ivanova, Andrei Stoianov, Elena Chekmazova, Danil Steklov, Danil Mozhaev, Larisa Nikitina, Natal’ia Pavlenkova, Kseniia Radchenko)
Producers: Ekaterina Mikhailova, Vladislav Pasternak, Igor Fokin
Production: Vega Film, OvalGrid.

Kseniia Zueva: Nearest and Dearest (Blizkie, 2017)

reviewed by Otto Boele© 2018

Updated: 2018