Issue 59 (2018)

Valeriia (Lera) Surkova: Pagans (Iazychniki, 2017)

reviewed by Elise Thorsen© 2018


Pagans is a film set in modern-day Moscow that depicts the struggle for the soul of a family and, by interpretive extension, for the soul of Russia. For her first feature-length film, Lera Surkova has adapted a play written by the late Ukrainian playwright Anna Yablonskaya (Hanna Iablonska), from her repertoire at Teatr.doc, bringing most of the cast from the play into the film. The stamp on the film of a studio theater’s small cast and disciplined plot is evident, not to mention Teatr.doc’s specific profile of hard-hitting commentary about contemporary Russia. However, the film effectively translates the play into the language of cinema, so that its origins as a play form a solid skeleton for the exploration of the film’s spaces rather than a cage for its expressiveness.

The film’s narrative begins with the unannounced arrival of Natal’ia Stepanovna (Tat’iana Vladimirova) at her son’s doorstep, ten years after she last visited or even made contact and bearing blessed consumables that she has collected while on pilgrimage during her absence. She is dying, she explains, and needs to tie up loose ends and ensure that her family is spiritually ready for her departure. Rapidly, Natal’ia Stepanovna’s goal to see her granddaughter Kristina (Vitaliia En’shina) baptized becomes monomaniacal, although the young, college-aged woman identifies as agnostic and never consents to baptism. To this end, the old woman recruits, or at least wears down the resistance of, those close to Kristina. She wins over the mother Marina (Elena Nesterova) by ensuring material security for the family, the father Oleg (Valentin Samokhin) by evoking the same feelings of helplessness he felt when she abandoned him at age three, and the impressionable family friend Botsman (Dmitrii Urosov) by apparently supernaturally dispelling his desire to drink vodka. Everyone is brought around to family harmony reinforced by religious values that only Kristina resists. In the face of pressure from her family combined with confused feelings over a bad breakup she cannot confide to anyone, Kristina attempts escape from the situation by suicide. Natal’ia Stepanovna’s hold on the family is shaken and normalcy is restored. The family returns to its “paganism.”

The antagonisms of Pagans are clear cut and the narrative is hostile to the power the Russian Orthodox Church exerts through Natal’ia Stepanovna. While tendentious, the film reflects with honesty the reasons why ordinary people align with an institution that holds the potential to be destructive. To this end, the film depicts a range of value systems in the family and shows how each can intersect or clash with traditional religious values.

pagansBefore Natal’ia Stepanovna’s arrival, the family can hardly be understood as a single unit; everyone seems to want to escape to an elsewhere defined by his or her values. Oleg, an unemployed classical musician, cares about returning to the world of professional music to the exclusion of all else, including family happiness. He can be found late at night in the bathtub with headphones at full blast, at least until interrupted by his mother, who mentions she thought she heard the “pipes of hell.” Ever busy with sewing and showing real estate to semi-interested buyers, Marina seems more grounded and practical, but her quest for security means she ends up thinking about other people’s homes more than her own. Botsman, a family friend who is down on his luck and working as their handyman, appears to be escaping into the bottle. Finally, while the full scope of Kristina’s motivations remains obscure for most of the film, she is unable to connect with her parents or clearly articulate the different world she wants. Natal’ia Stepanovna knits these individuals into a values-guided collective. The greater ease that comes from compliance with those values is so palpable that one occasionally hopes for the recalcitrant Oleg and Kristina to make peace and stop resisting a situation that seems inevitable and even desirable. However, the callousness of this collective toward its black sheep—driving Kristina to attempt suicide and afterward more concerned with her immortal soul than her mortal body and personality—reveals the downsides of acquiescence.

The divergent paths of the characters are reflected in motifs associated with each character’s chief value system. For Marina and Botsman, the motifs are simpler – the cell phone connecting Marina to unseen other homes and the African mask symbolizing the amorphous powers Botsman feels hold sway over his life. For Oleg, classical music naturally plays an important role in his value system, but the film nuances the role of music in the film by drawing attention to its specifically recorded nature. Music is seen in the player system, on the television screen, but not as a live performance. Even Oleg’s own audition at the beginning of the film is only seen on screen through the video camera of the audition committee. The image of music, rather than music itself, is what is available, leading one to understand that the escape to pure music may be an illusion. The appearance of a live performance on the screen thus signals a major shift in Oleg’s own value system.

pagansThe articulation of Kristina’s and Natal’ia Stepanovna’s value systems in film language reflects how all-encompassing and powerful value systems can be. Kristina’s point of view manifests in brightly lit, black-and-white footage on the frozen Moscow River, with careful attention to the compositions of dark and light. Eventually it becomes clear that shots from her point of view depict the moments before she is dumped by her teacher-lover and falls through the ice. Through the extremely aestheticized cinematography and the fragmentariness of the editing, Kristina attempts to work out a narrative of the events that is true to her sensitive nature and intuitive values (also expressed in reaction to a crow’s death). The cinematography also shifts for Natal’ia Stepanovna’s point of view, in a completely different way. At the beginning and end of the film, Natal’ia Stepanovna takes part in the ritual of the Great Blessing of the Water during the Theophany by dunking herself in frigid water and then joining in the Easter procession and mass. During these scenes, the level of light falls, and she seems to exist surrounded by a joyous crowd in out-of-focus warmth. In seeing Natal’ia Stepanovna’s personal reality in array with those of her family, one understands that she holds just one of multiple value systems, and that it is all-encompassing, but also comfortable and pleasant. However, the juxtaposition between Kristina’s and Natal’ia Stepanovna’s aesthetics, between light and dark, clarity and graininess, heavily suggests the director’s preferred method of engagement with the world.>

Kristina’s and Natal’ia Stepanovna’s points of view—and the film itself—are bound up in death and rebirth. The chronology of the film is anchored at either end by Great Feasts in the Russian Orthodox liturgical calendar. On one end, baptisms, rebirths in Christ, occur during the Theophany; on the other, congregants celebrate the resurrection of Jesus at Easter. These theological anchors are matched by major personal moments of death and rebirth for Kristina: her plunge through the ice as a phase of her life ends with the breakup and her awakening from a coma. While the two characters’ deaths and resurrections are parallel and therefore possibly equivalent, the film includes some additional guidance for interpreting these moments. Botsman draws the distinction between the life of an immortal soul and the life of an individual personality, concluding that the church is fixated on death rather than rebirth (without, it must be confessed, a great deal of intellectual rigor). Less didactically, an offhand moment in the middle of the film depicting a burning Shrovetide effigy reminds the viewer that death and rebirth are features of pagan traditions of spring and that, while important, they do not necessarily have to be the defining moments of life. Indeed, as the epilogue shows, life goes on and this episode that occurred late one winter turns out not even to be the defining moment of the characters’ lives.

pagansIf Natal’ia Stepanovna’s traditional values are essentially equivalent to those of any other character, although rather more immersive and dictatorial, the question arises as to how everyone else is so readily subordinated to her. Implicitly, this is a question of how the Russian Orthodox Church can have gained so much material wealth and political power by contrast to the other cultural and intellectual value systems that Russia has produced. Natal’ia Stepanovna’s personal story of how she came to the church reflects poverty, likely Soviet anomie to which the church offered a communal alternative, and sadness over an abortion that was readily converted into guilt. Also, unlike music or philosophy, where at least part of the institutional apparatus is always ready to reject the aspirant, the church had a ready-made structure to absorb every sacrifice she could make, up to and including losing her family. It is possible to understand how the total dissolution of such earthly burdens made up for the total loss of personal ties, even if, as an agent of the Church, she also shows how coercive the moment of conversion must have been.

A final point that reinforces the invitation to critique the role of the Church in modern life is the alignment of Kristina and non-Christian values with Africa. Kristina has been writing a thesis on African religion while falling in love with her teacher; Botsman has a talismanic African mask acquired when he successfully passed through a tribal ritual during his days as a sailor. The African motif raises the question of colonialism and Christianity’s complicity in that political violence and coercion, thus offering prospective paths for a parallel coercive religious mission. Without entering the details of the Christianization of Rus’ or the re-Christianization of post-Soviet Russia, with the example of Africa, Pagans suggests that the power of religious institutions reflects something awry and encourages viewers to take responsibility for their values and attitudes.

Elise Thorsen
Independent Scholar

Comment on this article on Facebook

Pagans, Russia, 2017
Color, 92 minutes
Director: Lera Surkova
Scriptwriters: Lera Surkova, Anna Yablonskaya
DoP: Siuzanna Musaeva and Maksim Trapo
Production Design: Denis Sazonov, Pavel Romanov
Editing: Dmitrii Naumov
Cast: Elena Nesterova, Valentin Samokhin, Vitaliia En’shina, Tat’iana Vladimirova, Dmitrii Urosov, Artem Grigor’ev, Anna Kotova
Producers: Aleksandr Kott, Vladimir Kott
Production: Kott Production

Valeriia (Lera) Surkova: Pagans (Iazychniki, 2017)

reviewed by Elise Thorsen© 2018

Updated: 2018