Alexander Shapiro: Cicuta (Tsykuta, 2002)

reviewed by Lesya Prokopenko© 2009

cicutaAlexander Shapiro is a master of hyperreal storylines and urban visions. His heroes appear to be mostly weirdoes, though this is an effect of bringing everyday features directly to the screen.

The theme of drugs nowadays is a burning one, and it is fashionable as well in contemporary cinema. Similarly, Shapiro is a fashionable “underground” director, of the type that makes marginality the greatest commercial value. The gesture of bringing out the city dirt—which has always been characteristic of “modern life” in Baudelairian way—proves Shapiro to be a very introspective, intuitive and explicit artist. Still, the mass production and distribution of his first feature film, Hemlock, has been forbidden.

Shapiro shows both Kyiv “ghettos” and familiar downtown streets, creating a recognizable picture of the city. People in the film speak Ukrainianized Russian characteristic of the capital without clearing off any of the pronunciation details, in contrast to the way it often happens in average Ukrainian cinema, when movie characters speak a polished bookish language almost nobody actually uses, regardless of the region.

cicutaCicuta starts with a descriptive episode where the director’s voice explains his opinion on the cinematic visual mechanisms, on the problem of what is shown and cut, and who watches it. We see the elderly people talking in the street, houses, certain gestures—and all of this is a background for Shapiro’s reflections on the cinema and its audience of recipients. This obviously is reminiscent of Godard’s philosophic investigations and conclusions always growing out of the actual scenario. Later the same voice starts talking about drugs and their effects, and the attention is drawn to film’s central character, a drug-dealer nicknamed Barokko (Baroque). He is a mysterious and silent person, an unshaven man wearing a sweater and a jacket. His identity is being constructed of random information coming from various unclear sources, like prostitutes’ conversation, or a cocaine-sniffing interrogator. All of Barokko’s self-descriptions come in modest obscure portions mixed with his own meditations on life and people around him.

The next part consists of episodes that show Barokko’s clients or potential customers, always in pairs. A dialogue, a certain correlation gives birth to an additional fragment of the urban picture, organized by the absence/presence of Barokko as a provider of the similar altering/disappearing substance.

cicutaThe first fragment is the conversation of a man and a woman waiting for the dealer early in the morning under the bridge over the Dnieper River. The meditative episode, though, has an uncanny mood, a fear of alteration, as they talk about the effect of Barokko’s drug.

The next one shows a young thuggish man waking up in a flat, which later turns out to be someone else’s, though he finds it impossible to comprehend. He calls up his older friend, a 50-something man in sunglasses and a leather jacket that he wears on a naked torso. The leather-jacketed man whom he calls “Frank” is his guru and life-teacher up to the point when the young man (“Roger”) asks him whether “ketamine” is spelled with “e” or with “i”. Later, “Roger” gets mad at Barokko, who didn’t turn up when they had appointed. Calling him a fag, “Roger” explicates the ambivalence of his own relations with “Frank.”

cicutaThe third couple are two men as well, who drive a car in the center of Kiev, getting high and looking for stuff to get high with on the go. They look totally stressed and half-conscious, throwing away a discharged cell-phone after the failure to get in touch with the dealer. Afterwards, the two men end up in a large flat, where a young lady in a silky robe treats them with a joint of marijuana and big lollypops, served on plates.

The final fourth couple are two workers who come in a truck to clean out the sewer. They chat and watch “Roger,” who is sitting nearby totally stoned, waiting for his girlfriend. The workers smoke a joint too, and the elder one starts to give “brilliant” ideas on lotteries. “Roger” comes up and asks them to quit their works for a while, because his consort is going to come up. The men decide that they can’t, and a military march starts playing.

cicutaSpeaking of music and sound effects in Cicuta, we should note that Shapiro inventively uses Soviet, contemporary, and classical tunes, television advertisements and city noises to create a unique sphere that is not a mere background, but an essential part of the whole picture. The sounds and songs produce a surreal outcome highlighting the tragic-comical mood of a world under drugs. This also makes the “real” world and the media-sphere hesitant and undefined. The film exposes its own mechanism, adding to this psychotic unstructuredness. For example, a jolly girl takes efforts to reproduce the supermarket announcement, forgetting phrases and talking to the operator.

The film contains a variety of contextually random, though introspectively meaningful images that add to its observing quality—for instance, a praying Jewish man, or two girls playing tennis. This is what Jacques Ranciere meant when defining the image as something referring and sending to the Other, not to itself. Cicuta is, in a way, a symphony of images, and a study of imagery at the same time. The image conquers self-sufficient visuality, making it chaotic and broken through additional references. Even the camera work depicts this: the camera is often still, and then starts shaking or moving erratically. The cutting is detailed and sophisticated, but provides a chaotic sequence; jump cuts are often used. Cicuta looks like a deliberately failing attempt to synchronize the urban anthill, centered on the trickster figure of a drug dealer.

cicutaFinally, the only person who tries to communicate with Barokko is a tall skinny man in a dark raincoat. He insists they met during their military service—and his intervention opens that Barokko has got questions about himself, though he chooses to be careful with the stranger. In the end, Barokko sends him a note uncovering the final episode. The film ends with the dealer’s body hanging head-down on the rope, and another portion of philosophic monologue.

Cicuta, being a quasi-documentary representation of contemporary Kyiv at a turn of the century of the centuries, particularly works on estrangement of familiar topography and lingo. The black-and-white vision produces a generalization effect, smoothens the diversity of characters and places and, therefore, highlights the expression of a different reality—both that of drugs, altered consciousness and perception, and that of the narrator’s metaphysical passages. The reflexive aspect goes hand in hand—and in contrast—with the fragmentation, unclearness, and absurdity of modern life.

Lesya Prokopenko, Kyiv

Cicuta, Ukraine, 2002
Black-and-white, 104 min.
Director: Alexander Shapiro
Script: Alexander Shapiro
Cinematography: Pavlo Arkhanhel
Art Direction: Ivan Levchenko
Music: Nikita Moiseev
Cast: Artem Oleksin, Oleksandr Pryshchepa, Viktor Okhon'ko, Anton Komiakhov, Iurii Nezdymenko, Volodymyr Horians'kyi, Kostiantyn Shaforenko
Procuder: Dmytro Kolesnikov
Production: TFS Productions


Alexander Shapiro: Cicuta (Tsykuta, 2002)

reviewed by Lesya Prokopenko© 2009