Issue 67 (2020)

Dmitrii Davydov: No God Except Me (Net boga krome menia, 2019)

reviewed by Sergei Anashkin © 2020

Before the face of destiny

net boga krome meniaDmitrii Davydov is not out to please audiences. The title No God Except Me can be seen as programmatic statement: I do what I consider to be necessary. Indeed, the local Yakut audience does not accept this kind of cinema, which is too different from the usual genre films for the masses.

The filmmaker breaks with unwritten conventions: the principles of narration go against the audience expectations, where the local spectator is accustomed to stories with a concisely articulated message. A sad ending is supposed to occur only in horror films or mystical dramas, as a result of erroneous actions and payment for sins or the infringement of everyday and moral taboos.

Davydov immerses the spectator in a situation of “delayed catastrophe,” without hope for a happy ending. There is neither invigorating optimism (smile through tears), nor an obvious moral message, neither consolation nor edification. The film’s aftertaste is one of bitterness and grief, a feeling of sincere discomfort. Many viewers have seen in the film only an act of savoring on people’s hopelessness (“in vain I spent two hours of my life watching the film,” wrote one blogger).

The subject of the conversation dictates the logic of the narration, the film’s style and tone. The tragedy emerges out of everyday routine. The plot is shaped by Alzheimer’s disease, which deforms not only the identity of the patient, but changes the quality of life of the people around her. There is no miracle cure for this misfortune, at least so far. Periods of apathy alternate with aggressive impulses; neither a shaman nor a doctor can cure this illness.

net boga krome meniaNo God Except Me is the story of a man from a village in his forties, not cunning and not very bright, and about his relationship with his mother who is gradually losing her mind. Ruslan remains alone with his troubles: there is nobody he could turn to. The mother’s illness has destroyed his marriage. His wife has chosen a quiet life in the city, where she could devote herself to the children rather than fuss over the mad mother-in-law. The neighbors push Ruslan away from his native village: the old Maria is mentally unstable, and in a blip she snatches a gun, threatening the people who approach the house. She thus represents a danger to her community. The village council convinces Ruslan to go to Yakutsk for the sake of the mother’s treatment (city doctors are more competent than those in the village).

net boga krome meniaA rented apartment. A poor life. The woodcutter Ruslan has become a stoker. Maria’s dementia progresses. The old woman behaves more and more strangely: she throws away food from the refrigerator, she urinates on the floor, she tries to escape from the son’s supervision and leave without aim and purpose... wherever her eyes look. She no longer recognizes her son. Ruslan resigns himself to his fate and endures her tricks, in a rare example of love and humility. He has to be resourceful and witty: the mother opens the door for him when he poses as a courier from a food delivery service. In moments of brief clarity, Maria feels her own inadequacy (she says a sad phrase: “there is only emptiness inside me”), and asks the son not to leave her at the mercy of fate.

net boga krome meniaIn his debut film Bonfire (Koster na vetru, 2016), Davydov shot non-professional actors. For his new picture, he invited professional actors of the Sakha Theatre in Yakutsk. It is difficult to establish who of the two principal actors had the hardest job—Petr Sadovnikov playing Ruslan or Zoya Bagynanova playing Maria. They work in quite different ways: Sadovnikov apparently does not play-act at all, but dissolves in the character. We may recognize him as a “man from the street,” with objective and organic behavior, an original character, the essence of the little man; yet he is also a true working man—huge, stocky, and rather unsightly. But in the frame he appears almost monumental. Bagynanova plays in a shrill and inspired manner, remaining within the traditions of the psychological school and “professional skills.” In her eyes we sometimes detect complete detachment, sometimes a childlike helplessness, sometimes the reflection of maternal tenderness. Between the actress and her heroine lies a crucial gap: it is impossible to plunge head over heels into madness.

net boga krome meniaThe film crew continually develops visual themes. The cameraman Ivan Semenov captures Maria behind lace curtains, substantiating the metaphor of a “veil of alienation.” The figure of Ruslan is deliberately isolated from the public space. The camera focuses on the characters’ faces, while the long distance shots of figures at the meeting is indistinct and unfocused. Sometimes the composition of the frame is such that the hero drops out of the viewer’s field of vision (for example, shot through a door frame), and his presence at the location is designated only through sound.

net boga krome meniaOnly one person shows sympathy for Ruslan’s troubles: his fellow countryman, who for some time worked as the local doctor in his distant settlement. Probably the gray-haired Spartak Ilyich remembers Maria as a young, attractive woman. But his kindness is not quite disinterested: he is the owner of a private hospital that specializes in the care for old people. The care requires significant payments from the families. There comes a moment when Ruslan understands that he can no longer take proper care of his mother: he sells the parental home and places Maria in the private medical institution, under the supervision of his fellow countryman Spartak Ilyich, breaking his promise to stay next to his mother to the end. The old woman escapes from the clinic dressed only in a nightgown, and freezes on a dump. In the final scene, when identifying the body, Ruslan breaks down: all the pain that he has concealed suddenly bursts out, and a powerful surge of emotions erases the borders between fury and despair.

The ingenuous spectator must experience here something like a cognitive dissonance. The hero has deserved some indemnification for all the adversity and unhappiness of recent years. The mother has died, so at least the wife and children should return to this good man. However, the filmmaker remains “unfair” to a worthy character: Ruslan’s perseverance is not rewarded. The man’s weakness is not forgiven by destiny. Thus, instead of distinct didactics we are left with an ethical paradox.

net boga krome meniaIn No God Except Me Davydov continues to develop a theme sketched out in his debut film Bonfire: man before destiny, the individual under the dictate of circumstances (in the limited sphere of everyday opportunities). The relentlessness of fate ties together unpretentious stories about rural gawks with the themes of antique tragedy. The director’s humanism is expressed not in ostentatious complacency, not in endings that are comfortable for the mass audience; instead, his philanthropy is revealed in the choice and treatment of the central character. A certain alienation is typical of Davydov’s style, but we should not confuse the game of impartiality with absolute indifference. The distance which the observer holds in relation to the characters does not prevent him/her from experiencing sympathy. In an ordinary “little man” Davydov is capable of seeing a hero comparable by moral standards with those of Greek dramas. The Greek hero stoically overcame adversity even if opposition was doomed to failure from the start. The director affirms a simple truth: the scale of human personality does not depend on  birthplace, ethnic attributes, social background or the slant of the eye. Existential pitfalls are not the privilege of intellectuals, but the rural population (not obliged to know Albert Camus and the Myth of Sisyphus) can get caught up in them as well. Life places before Ruslan the fateful question: should he carry the heavy burden or dump it? This problem does not have a simple or a correct answer.

The film’s “architecture” is impressive in the dramatic construction and the intelligence of the directorial decisions. The filmmaker builds his film on semantic echoes, visual rhymes and alliterations. Sometimes a bus appears in the frame. Here, the public space is filled with infectious laughter of the old woman. Here, the figure of the lonely passenger is absorbed in a relentless, imposing silence. Maria literally dissolves in a dance, expressing through movement her involuntary pleasure. In an ecstatic dance, Ruslan gets rid of negative emotions. The two dissimilar dances rhyme thanks to the interiors of the night cafe.

net boga krome meniaDavydov occupies a special place in Yakut cinema, and not just because he is self-taught: there are many such self-taught directors without diplomas in Yakutsk. And not because he lives outside the republic’s capital, in the settlement Amga, where he works as headmaster at a school. And not even because he is an ethnically mixed Sakha-Russian and not a pure Yakut. The matter lies in the specificity of consciousness, in the resolute and sufficiently impudent position the director adopts. A man of two cultures, Davydov aspires to tell universal stories. Leaning on an authentic everyday story, he creates original, auteur cinema instead of “ethnic” films (calculated above all on the taste of the local audience).

Let’s return to the film’s title. In a personal letter, Davydov has given two interpretations of the phrase “there is no God except me.” The first refers to the image held by a child, for whom a parent is a true deity: s/he protects, edifies, and punishes. The second interpretation reflects the director’s spirit. He admitted that after Bonfire he seriously doubted whether it was worth being a director. In the title of the new film lies the answer to the question. I suggested my own reading: “man is lonely in our world, he can rely only on himself. Lord—if he exists—is far away and inaccessible. God is taking a rest, he has more important things than dealing with us.” Davydov replied: “It’s possible to understand it this way, too.”

Translated by Birgit Beumers

Sergei Anashkin
Yekaterinburg, Russia

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No God Except Me, Sakha, 2019
Color, 115 minutes
Director and Scriptwriter: Dmitrii Davydov
DoP: Ivan Semenov
Production Design: Sargylana Skriabina
Composer & Sound: Sergei Iarmonov
Cast: Petr Sadovnikov, Zoya Bagynanova
Producer: Sardana Savvina, Semen Shishigin
Production: Bonfire Production, Taragai Cinema, with support of Sakhafilm

Dmitrii Davydov: No God Except Me (Net boga krome menia, 2019)

reviewed by Sergei Anashkin © 2020

Updated: 2020