Issue 74 (2021)

Ivan Bolotnikov: Palmyra (Russia, 2021)

reviewed by Anthony Anemone © 2021

palmyraAn accomplished documentarian, whose early films have won several prizes at film festivals in Russia and Europe, Ivan Bolotnikov (b. 1969) studied with Aleksei Iu. German and Svetlana Karmalitova at the Higher Courses for Directors and Scriptwriters and worked as trainee director on Hard to be a God (Trudno byt’ bogom, 2013). Over the past five years, he has moved to feature films, writing and directing two ambitious but very different films: his remarkable debut Kharms (2016) and Palmyra. A visually stunning if emotionally restrained arthouse portrait of the writer in the years leading up to his premature death in 1942, Kharms announced the arrival of a mature artist and accomplished visual stylist in complete control of every aspect of his art. The visual style of Kharms is based on a rigorously stationary camera, careful and elegant framing of individual shots, leisurely pacing, and an experimental musical score that integrates jazz inflections to create a complex sound faktura. Seamlessly integrating documentary footage from the 1930s into the narrative, the film moves freely between the main character’s past, present, and future, as well as between reality, dream, and literature. Yet, by presenting the writer’s life elliptically and episodically, and avoiding all explanatory dialog, Bolotnikov’s film posed serious challenges for viewers who did not know Daniil Kharms’ life, poems, stories, notebooks, and diaries well. In Palmyra, Bolotnikov applies a similar visual style to a more dramatic and contemporary story about family, religion, Islamic fundamentalism, and terrorism in Dagestan and the Middle East.

palmyraPalmyra opens with several beautifully composed shots of a village in the Northern Caucasus where Artur (played by the Hungarian actor Géza Morcsányi), a middle-aged surgeon who served with the Russian army in the Chechen war, has raised his daughter and still lives. Suddenly, Russian commandos approach the village, break into his home, and take him prisoner. They inform him that his only daughter Maryam (Ekaterina Kramarenko) has abandoned her university studies in St Petersburg, burnt her Russian passport, and joined the Islamic State (IS) in Syria. Shocked, he immediately sets off for Turkey and Syria. Using village connections as well as old army contacts, he travels through a hellish landscape of bombed buildings, unattended children trying to keep warm around bonfires, armed men, brutal public executions, underequipped hospitals full of people slowly dying, fanatics in charge of every aspect of daily life, and everywhere the threat of random violence. This is the ISIS Caliphate, controlled by unapologetic fanatical utopians who reject the real world as tainted by greed and corruption. The absurdity of life under ISIS is conveyed as he is “registered” by the local ISIS officials: when they find in his pocket a photo of his daughter, they inform him that it is a sin for a man to carry a photograph of a woman. They cut the photograph in half, leaving only her eyes and forehead visible, return it to him, and tell him “Welcome to Paradise.”

palmyraLike the father in Paul Schrader’s film Hardcore (1979), whose search for his disappeared daughter took him through the nightmarish world of hardcore pornography, Artur searches for his daughter in the hellish world of ISIS-controlled Syria. Such movies tend to work in two ways: they take viewers on a shocking tour through a particular hell on earth while promising to explain how a “normal” person could end up in such a life. While Palmyra succeeds brilliantly at depicting the hell on earth created by ISIS, in the end it foregoes explanations for immediate emotional impact.

After several unlikely plot coincidences (e.g., on his way into Syria, Artur meets a sympathetic nurse—played by Serbian actress Danijela Stojanovic—who speaks perfect Russian and works at the same hospital), the story turns to ideological questions. In a brilliant dream-like scene, reminiscent in some ways of the Grand Inquisitor’s interview with Christ in The Brothers Karamazov, Artur and the local ISIS leader, Abu Didgan (Vagif Kerimov) philosophize about human nature. The humanist Artur defends individual freedom, while the religious ideologue replies that only the fear of punishment will motivate people to obey God’s will. Immediately afterwards, Artur meets his daughter, who tells him that she wants to remain with ISIS. Still, when the military situation worsens and returning home becomes a possibility, she begs her father to take her with him.

palmyraIf the film’s end, which I will not reveal here, is shocking, it will neither surprise viewers, nor will it answer the question why a young, intelligent, and idealistic Dagestani woman would join, much less remain loyal to, ISIS. Part of the problem is that the main characters are more ideological stalking horses than complex human beings. Artur, for example, is the ideal modern Muslim, for whom there are no contradictions between traditional faith and contemporary secular values; Abu Didgan, the medieval fanatic who puts religious consistency before human values; and Maryam, the naïve young woman led disastrously astray because of utopian idealism. Even when they confront each other directly, their conversations turn into airless recitations of opposing ethical propositions (Artur and Abu Didgan) or one-sided pleas met with silence (Artur and Maryam). Because none of them is willing to question the validity of their convictions and conclusions, no real dialog is possible. The one character who sees both sides is Sabria, the chador-wearing nurse who believes that “the fight for freedom has driven people insane,” yet chooses to remain with ISIS because of the corruption of the secular world. The problem here, of course, is that while viewers see the violence, fanaticism, and absurdities of life in the ISIS Caliphate through Artur’s eyes, the “horrors” of the world outside ISIS do not rise above such cliched generalizations. 

palmyraAnother problem is purely linguistic. Bolotnikov’s characters speak a language that, simultaneously highly mannered and literary and stripped down to basic linguistic elements, does not exist in the real world. Largely restricted to simple declarative sentences in the present tense, the characters speak in precise and logical phrases, without any wasted words, expressing high-minded sentiments, quoting traditional aphorisms and the Koran, handing out paternalistic advice, or posing complex philosophical questions with the simplicity and directness of a highly intelligent child. This highly crafted and equally artificial language is performed with absolute confidence by the actors without a hint of irony, complexity, or doubt. If the intended effect was presumably to magnify the characters, situations, and predicaments, the actual result is quite different: the common language they speak makes the characters seem less like individuals caught in real dilemmas and more like puppets in a contrived drama orchestrated by the screenwriters. In the end, despite gripping moments, some excellent performances, and stunning cinematography, the movie adds nothing to our understanding of a critically important contemporary issue.

Anthony Anemone
The New School

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Palmyra, Russia, 2021
Color, 125 minutes
Director: Ivan Bolotnikov
Script: Konstantin Lopushanskii, Viacheslav Rybakov, Ivan Bolotnikov, Denis Gutsko
Cinematography: Airat Iamilov
Production Design: Maksim Maleev
Music: Andrei Sigle
Cast: Géza Morcsányi, Ekaterina Kramarenko, Danijela Stojanovic, Vagif Kerimov
Producer: Andrei Sigle
Production Company: Proline Film

Ivan Bolotnikov: Palmyra (Russia, 2021)

reviewed by Anthony Anemone © 2021

Updated: 2021