Issue 74 (2021)

Iuliia Kolesnik: Elsa’s Land (Zemlia El’zy, 2021)

reviewed by Natalija Majsova © 2021

elsas landOn a sunny day in a village in the Altai region, the death of a respectable elderly man is mourned by friends and family. Elsa, the widow (Irina Pechernikova) seems confused, and everyone but the silent Altai mountains supposes that her profound grief is to blame. Her adult daughter Olga (Anna Ukolova) offers to stay with her for a while, and the entire village is intent on paying their last respects to her late husband by making clumsy efforts to offer her solace. To the entire community’s bewilderment, Elsa ignores this outpouring of collective kindness, and scandalously falls in love with Leonid (Veniamin Smekhov), a newcomer in the village.

This whirlpool of events ensues in the first ten minutes of Iuliia Kolesnik’s fifth fiction feature film, and this is just the beginning of a long series of unusual events. Elsa and Leonid are drawn to one another and are willing to abandon all their responsibilities and relationships in order to be together. Their infatuation with one another appears to transpose them into a special dimension, where none of their mundane concerns and forebodings are allowed to follow, until their age eventually catches up with them, leaving Elsa to mourn a second lover’s death at the end of the film.

However, Kolesnik’s film, based on Iaroslava Pulinovich’s eponymous play of 2015, is not about death or grief. It is a romantic melodrama about second chances, pure love, small miracles, and the quiet beauty of the everyday. Elsa, in her seventies, finds love when she least expects it; her companion is persistent enough to wait until she is ready to open up to him; and she lives in a region of incredible natural beauty that awaits to be discovered by a romantic couple.

elsas landAlthough the film has not received extensive critical acclaim, the rare reviews available on fora such as Kinopoisk are appreciative of Kolesnik’s “touching” take on love in old age (cf. Alekseeva 2020). While this assessment does justice to the overall concept of the film, it is also somewhat misleading, disregarding the high degree of fictionalization and stylization that dominates Elsa’s Land. Indeed, the plot, characters, and even the musical score dominated by the 1982 Italian pop song “Felicita,” perhaps most famously performed by Al Bano and Romina Power and remarkably popular in Russia to this day, create a fairy-tale atmosphere.

This atmosphere is crucial to the film, transporting the audience into an imaginary world where just about anything is possible. It creates space for a great number of comical scenes, which add layers to Elsa’s character. In these scenes, Evgeni Tsvetkov’s camera carefully foregrounds her physical and mental vulnerability and her frailness, while her words and actions testify to her determination and resilience. She might be slightly frightened of her dominant, loud daughter Olga, whose traditional beliefs prevent her from embracing her mother’s newly found happiness, but she never surrenders to her daughter’s will. Indeed, Elsa will rather hide under the table upon hearing Olga’s booming voice than cancel her date with Leonid to appease Olga. Similarly, Elsa might be deeply in love with Leonid, but she expects him to propose to her and dreams of a glamorous wedding, picking out the brightest pink dress. The hardships experienced in her post-WWII youth due to her German descent have turned Elsa into a quiet, but spirited woman.

elsas landLeonid, in turn, immediately sees through Elsa’s black widow’s gown, slight stutter, and quiet presence, recognizing her as a stunning, attractive, and lovable woman. In contrast to Elsa’s amicable clumsiness, convincingly portrayed by Pechernikova, Leonid personifies confidence, accomplishment, and stability. Even if likened with a mature Prince Charming, the contrast between Smekhov’s womanizer-like mores and his devotion to Elsa is surprising and somewhat unconvincing. According to the plot, Leonid is intended to provide an antipode to Elsa’s violent and patriarchic late husband Vasia.

Indeed, Leonid’s character is gentle and helpful; however, his masculinity remains of the dominant, patriarchic kind, epitomized in his suggestion that Elsa and he undertake a honeymoon trip abroad, to an unknown distant land which he—a retired geography teacher—promises to call “Elsa’s Land.” Leonid’s arrival in Elsa’s remote village in the Altai is described in much less detail than her own story; the contrast between his obscure past and his abundant positive qualities enhances the impression that he belongs to a dreamworld, which has little to do with reality. He makes a mean curry, speaks a foreign language, is impressively well-travelled, even for a high-school geography teacher, and genuinely cares for Elsa for no other reason than love. He even joins the village choir that she attends, proposing to translate the lyrics of “Felicita,” adored by the elderly female singers, into Russian.

elsas landElsa and Leonid’s characters and the dynamic of their relationship resemble a Disney love story to such a degree that an unexpected twist—Leonid’s heart attack just before their wedding—is needed to remind the spectator that this is, after all, a film about happiness and love in old age. The film’s resolution, which entails Leonid’s death, Elsa’s reconciliation with her own daughter and with Leonid’s family, and her gratitude for the brief period of enamored bliss that followed her husband’s death, further reminds us that old age brings wisdom. Having learned about Leonid’s failure to recover from the fateful heart attack, Elsa collapse into a children’s swing next to the local cultural establishment, letting the sounds of the choir practicing inside break her sadness. This time, the choir sings the Italian eulogy to happiness, “Felicita,”in Russian, as it is honoring Leonid and his contribution to the community.

This dense, pensive finale brings us back to the main premise of the film: a love story of a mature couple in a small village in the Altai. Furthermore, it questions the director’s choice to wrap up this idea in many layers of fictionalization and to rely on stereotypical gender roles and relationship dynamics. Dominated by comical stereotypes and clichés, the narrative and characters in Elsa’s Land possess little verisimilitude, creating a fast-paced melodrama with some witty slapstick elements, but with a limited capacity to reflect on the circumstances, motives, and desires of the protagonists in a deep and complex way.

 

Natalija Majsova
University of Ljubljana

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Works Cited

Alekseeva, Ekaterina. 2020. “Zemlia El’zy – retsenzii zritelei”. KinoPoisk.


Elsa’s Land, Russa, 2020
Color, 98 minutes
Director: Iulia Kolesnik
Screenplay: Iuliia Kolesnik, Aleksandr Rusakov
Cinematography: Evgenii Tsvetkov
Music: Anton Silaev
Cast: Irina Pechernikova, Veniamin Smekhov, Anna Ukolova, Sergei Epishev, Liubov' Konstantinova, Vladimir Goriushin, Maksim Bitiukov
Producers: Aleksandr Kessel', Ruslan Sorokin, Galina Sytsko, Evgenii Iashchuk, Guillaume de Seille, Viacheslav Mikhailov

Iuliia Kolesnik: Elsa’s Land (Zemlia El’zy, 2021)

reviewed by Natalija Majsova © 2021

Updated: 2021