Issue 73 (2021)

Vladimir Mirzoev: How Nadia Went to Get Vodka (Kak Nadia poshla za vodkoi, 2020)

reviewed by Dane Reighard © 2021

nadya poshlaVladimir Mirzoev’s How Nadia Went to Get Vodka is a feature-length expansion of his short film Russian Death (Russkaia smert’, 2018), an adaptation of Irina Vas’kovskaia’s 2017 play of the same name. One of Russia’s most acclaimed theater directors since the 1980s, Mirzoev dabbled in film and television productions until finally making his cinematic splash in 2011 with Boris Godunov, which transported Pushkin’s tragedy to present-day Russia. However, despite—or, more likely, because of—significant media coverage and controversy in response to the narrative’s inherent political commentary, the film did not enjoy a wide theatrical release. Ironically (though probably not accidentally), Mirzoev’s next film, the more intentionally provocative Her Name Was Mumu (Ee zvali Mumu, 2016), based on a real and contemporary political scandal, was largely ignored. This anticlimactic trajectory may help to explain, then, why How Nadia Went to Get Vodka feels relatively unambitious in both form and content. At the same time, Mirzoev’s decision to revisit and expand upon his short film, recruiting Vas’kovskaia to script additional scenes and a new ending, indicates that the project must be a labor of love.

nadya poshlaThe original scenario, which accounts for nearly half the film’s total running time, concerns two sisters: twentysomething Nadia (Nadezhda Igoshina), extroverted and impulsive, and Valia (Evgeniia Solianykh), who is a decade older, priggish and introspective. They live together in a working-class district on the outskirts of a city in a two-story dacha that looks as if it could collapse at any moment. The garden is overgrown with weeds, the roof is leaking, and there are signs of unfinished renovations throughout the property. Nadia, shown in the opening scene drunkenly wandering around a nightclub, brings a handsome middle-aged man named Aleksei (Evgenii Tsyganov) home with her. The following evening, the three of them eat, drink, squabble, and commiserate about their unsatisfying existences.

nadya poshlaThe homage to Anton Chekhov is so deliberately obvious that the characters comment on it outright. Upon arriving at the dacha, Aleksei observes, “You even have a mezzanine, I see. How Chekhovian.” The characters feel trapped, fated to a life of boredom and disappointment. Valia, it turns out, sold the sisters’ city apartment years ago in order to pursue unfulfilled dreams in Venice, and Alexei is stuck in a loveless marriage to a woman he has nicknamed psina (dog). When Valia explains what she means when she tells Nadia, “This is our Russian death,” she might as well be summarizing Chekhov’s dominant dramaturgical motif: “After death,” she says, “every Russian goes to a place like this [dacha]. They’re given a samovar and a bucket of jam. You sit here and complain for eternity.”

nadya poshlaHaving directed The Cherry Orchard on the Moscow stage as recently as 2015, Mirzoev could probably mount this production in his sleep, and for a while one suspects he might have. An early scene in which the sisters share their fears about their uncertain future employs archly theatrical blocking. In front of their large wooden property gate—that symbolically loaded threshold, ever-present in provincial tales—they first stand perfectly still, side by side, with their backs toward the camera; next (after a cross-fade), Nadia is facing the camera, and Valia’s body is turned to face her, their perpendicular bodies awkwardly close, almost touching; finally, they are both facing the camera, with Valia standing one step ahead and slightly to the right of Nadia. One would be justified in assuming that these tableaux were lazily transferred directly from a staging of Vas’kovskaia’s play: How amusingly unsubtle—their inability to face each other while speaking represents a failure to effectively communicate, which further isolates each from the other. On top of that, the actors are not even attempting a conversational cadence; they deliver their lines in a hushed drone as if reciting an incantation. It is precisely this disruptive display of artifice, however, that imbues these scenes with an uncomfortable ethereality and renders the dacha a sort of liminal space between the living and the dead not unlike Baba Yaga’s hut.

nadya poshlaUnfortunately, this idea of “Russian death,” so central to the play and short film bearing it as a title, is rather deflated by the addition of a second act that centers Aleksei at his apartment. The dacha is not the purgatory described by Valia after all. Yes, the opening scene of Nadia partying is proof that the younger woman is not bound by the borders of their property, but her apparent alcoholism implies a restrictive cycle that mirrors her sister’s asceticism. The film’s updated title emphasizes this mobility up front, while at the same time implying that Nadia will always return, bottle in hand. It is disorienting, then, when the second act begins with a sequence of scenes that show Valia jogging outside with Nadia and shopping at the supermarket, where she has a chance encounter with Aleksei. Although Mirzoev’s expansion of the diegetic world beyond the dacha allows him to inject some cinematic flair (drone shots, long tracking shots, etc.) to a film that largely feels stage-bound, it also interrupts the suffocating artificiality that lends pathos to the sisters’ plight in the first act.

If the feature film is ultimately less effective than its shorter predecessor because a broader canvas dilutes its thematic resonance, Mirzoev’s doubling of the sisters’ and Aleksei’s stories nevertheless introduces a new, provocative thesis: “Russian death” is expanding beyond the rural periphery to the urban center. Some will be given a samovar and jam, but others, like Aleksei and his psina, will be given a television set and a bowl of potato chips.

Dane Reighard
University of California-Los Angeles

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How Nadia Went to Get Vodka (Kak Nadia poshla za vodkoi), Russia, 2020
Color, 78 minutes
Director: Vladimir Mirzoev
Screenplay: Irina Vas’kovskaia
DoP: Anton Mironovich, Iurii Burak
Editing: Irina Dolmat
Composer: Ivan Lubennikov
Production Design: Anna Shmidt, Ekaterina Siniakina, Maria Fomina
Cast: Evgeniia Solianykh, Nadezhda Igoshina, Evgenii Tsyganov, Iana Troianova
Producer: Evgeniia Solianykh
Release: 29 October 2020

Vladimir Mirzoev: How Nadia Went to Get Vodka (Kak Nadia poshla za vodkoi, 2020)

reviewed by Dane Reighard © 2021

Updated: 2021