Issue 70 (2020)

Evgenii Tatarov: Abandoned (Nichei, 2019)

reviewed by Alexandar Mihailovic © 2020

nicheiD. H. Lawrence once wrote that a drawing or painting always expresses a joy in its own image-making power, even in the face of the grimness of its subject matter. In Abandoned, director Evgenii Tatarov and screenwriter Elena Kulesh seem to put that idea to the test, looking for ways in which to redefine genre expectations of a movie-watching experience that has been steeped in the dark tones of anomie and social breakdown. On various streaming sites, the Russian responses to the film have been so diverse that they beg the question of whether viewers are talking about the same film. “It goes without saying, that this [film] is not for children, nor even for some adults,” user YuriIT opined (2019). The same commentator went on to say that the film belonged to “critical realism in the style of [Andrei Zviagintsev’s] Leviathan and [Iurii Bykov’s] The Fool [...]. If you want to spoil your mood, go right on ahead.” In contrast, other reviews have emphasized the redemptive aspects of the film’s drama (see also Sychev 2017).  

nicheiThe setting of the film is  an unnamed town in the provinces. A woman in her fifties named Valentina (‘Valia’) lives a hardscrabble life doing odd jobs for a construction company. Years earlier, she had given birth to a child that was severely disabled and  died after more than a year of round-the-clock medical care. Valia is informed that her sister has passed away, leaving behind an adult son who has been in and out of correctional facilities and a twelve-year-old named Kolia, who himself was separated from his irresponsible mother. We find Kolia living in an orphanage where he has enjoyed the reputation of being one of the kinder and more mature children in his ward. Kolia’s maturity, poise, and decency are seemingly the result of emulating his older brother. He imagines his brother—whose name, significantly, we never learn—as someone who is both fearless and unconventional. For Kolia, his brother is a real mensch, someone who represents the better aspects of zhizn’ po poniatiiam, the behavioral code observed by resourceful criminal elements who shuttle back and forth from the prison setting. As we discover at the end of the film, the brother is hardly the self-sufficient and honorable man that Kolia pictures him to be.

nicheiAt the encouragement of the orphanage, Valia adopts Kolia, who otherwise has no place else to go. The entire film seems to reverberate with the Weberian awareness that bureaucracy has a mind, if not a stubborn worldview, of its own. Although Kolia’s brother has been released from prison, he refuses to take in Kolia, which means that the responsibility of guardianship (opekunstvo) falls to his aunt. We’re made to understand that this moral calculus comes from the fact that paying Valia a monthly stipend to take care of Kolia is less than the state would have to pay for him in the internat, or orphanage. Kolia deeply resents his aunt, who he believes has manipulated his brother into passing on the offer of guardianship. In a possible nod to Zviagintsev’s Leviathan (2014), where the ill-fated protagonist’s son believes that family friends adopt him solely for selfish pecuniary reasons, Kolia at one point yells at Valia that “you only took me in for the money!” Yet in their film, Tatarov and Kulesh polemically offer a corrective to the mercenary world portrayed in Leviathan, where the boy Roma is probably correct in his cynical assessment of his adoptive parents’ motives.

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Kolia is a boy who is in search of adult mentors. Because Valia seems, at best, a second choice to his brother, the boy finds himself drawn to adult male figures. These include a gruff boat owner who lets him play with the wheel rudder on his river boat, and a mute eccentric who is shunned by everyone in  town. The eccentric is a talented wood worker who teaches Kolia how to carve. He is also the father of Valia’s deceased son. Valia loathes him for the fact that he did nothing to help her out after the birth of their handicapped son, whose death had pushed her into alcoholism. Besotted by the possibility of escape, Kolia carves a model boat, as a totem for leaving his aunt via the large river nearby, which at the beginning of the film she grandly describes to him as a ‘sea’. The turning point in the film’s action is Kolia’s actual escape to the town where his brother lives, after Valia prohibits him to visit the wood carver. It comes as no surprise that the reunion of the brothers does not meet with Kolia’s original expectations.

nicheiAt several points, Tatarov’s and Kulesh’s film seems to teeter on the edge of sentimentality, as in Kolia’s rapt admiration of a reproduction of a genre painting in the wood carver’s house depicting a multi-mast clipper ship. Flight by sea, anyone? Yet both director and screenwriter maintain a vigorous pace in their story about superfluous people, which include Valia and the wood carver as well as Kolia himself. In this respect, the film commendably avoids the lugubrious and downbeat tones and overwrought Dickensian ruminations of other Russian-language films that treat the topic of parentless children, such as Nikolai Gubenko’s Wounded Game (Podranki 1976) and Andrei Kravchuk’s The Italian (Italianets, 2005). Certainly, that topic has been highly charged in Russian culture ever since the demographic bulge of besprizorniki who were orphaned from the Russian civil war, a generational presence that Dziga Vertov memorably depicts in his Man with a Movie Camera (Chelovek s kinoapparatom, 1927).

nicheiQuite noticeable in the film is the proliferation of inexpressive and failed father figures, whether they be the boat owner, the wood carver, or Kolia’s louche and delinquent brother. The only male role model that seems to have any positive impact on the film is Lev Tolstoy, presented by an image on a poster that hangs in Kolia’s classroom. The camera lingers on the image, whose significance seems to correlate with Kolia’s abjuring of violence when he gives up the jackknife that was gifted to him by his brother, by leaving it on the doorstep of the wood carver’s house. Yet even Tolstoy here is nothing more than a paper-tiger of pacifism rather than a real person, which means that he is yet another father figure who is incapable of reciprocated communication.

Something needs to be said about Nadezhda Markina’s performance as Valia. Her role in Tatarov’s and Kulesh’s film may be understood as an elaboration of her remarkable performance in Zviagintsev’s Elena (2011). In that film, the partially walled-off quality of Elena’s thought processes stands in strong contrast to the representation of other characters, and with the narrative techniques of filmmakers who rely on a character’s garrulousness as a kind of surplus value or index for their core selves (such as Martin Scorsese or, in Russian-language cinema, Kira Muratova). In Zviagintsev's film, we have only a feeling or sensation of what makes Elena tick—as a mother, as someone protecting her brood in an almost deliberate invocation of the stolid and somewhat heavy-set Motherland figure shown in Soviet posters from World War II—rather than a series of statements that serve as a clear inventory for the repository of her Self. In Abandoned, we see a complete transparency in the portrayal of a person who represents, in many respects, the same character type as Zviagintsev’s Elena.

nicheiIn his camera work, Vasilii Ivanov achieves the cinematographic equivalent of Markina’s performance, of the humanization and accessibility to characters’ interiority that are often absent from Zvyagintsev’s films. Ivanov skillfully navigates between pictorialism and the maintenance of a storytelling momentum. The slide-show aspect of the intermittent sequences of architectural and infrastructural decay in the Russian countryside that we witness in Abandoned recalls much of Zviagintsev’s filmography—especially The Return (Vozvrashchenie, 2003) and Banishment (Izgnanie, 2007), as well as Andrei Tarkovsky’s Mirror (Zerkalo, 1975) and Stalker (1983). As Geoff Dyer points out in Zona: A Book about a Film about a Journey to a Room, the latter two films in particular are replete with exquisite images of dilapidation that bring us into a renewed awareness of the ordinary, which we now perceive with an “unprecedented attentiveness” that blurs the distinction between the natural world and the manufactured (Dyer 2012, 58-9).  In Ivanov’s cinematography, we find ourselves thinking in the terms of rapturous image-making that Lawrence contemplated. As in those other films, in Abandoned we are transfixed by the abstract expressionist quality in ruins of industrial-age modernity, with their splashes of cobalt blue, rose pink, and lime green jutting out against the backdrop of peeling and crumbling grey infrastructure, in what seems to be an assertion of the life principle.  

Yet in portraying the rough emergence of positivity out of such contaminated soil, the work of Ivanov, Tatarov, and Kulesh gives us pause. The film ends with the literally jarring image of Kolia alone on a wobbly boxcar, smiling directly at the camera as he flees to parts unknown. Just where will this life principle and the rebellion against chernukha with its dismantling of the social instinct actually take us? And might not such a flight, with its elbows-out reassertion of a life that finds its way among the rubble, be as frightening as the things it pushes aside?

Alexandar Mihailovic
Bennington College

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Works Cited

Dyer, Geoff. 2012. Zona: A Book about a Film about a Journey to a Room. NY: Vintage Books.

Sychev, Sergei. 2017. "'Nichei'. Retsenziia 'FilmPro'. FilmPro 9 August.

YuriT. 2019. (23 October).

Abandoned, Russia, 2019
Director: Evgenii Tatarov
Scriptwriter: Elena Kulesh
DoP: Vasilii Ivanov
Music: Maksim Koshevarov, Aleksandr Maev
Production Design: Pavel Svintsov
Cast: Nadezhda Markina, Oleg Chugunov, Vladimir Men’shov, Dar’ia Iurgens, Galina Bokashevskaia, Vladimir Iamnenko, Khel’ga Filippova, Sergei Rost,
Producer: Aleksandr Tutriumov
Release 19 October 2019

Evgenii Tatarov: Abandoned (Nichei, 2019)

reviewed by Alexandar Mihailovic © 2020

Updated: 2020