Larisa Sadilova: Babysitter Required (Trebuetsia niania), 2005

reviewed by Vida Johnson© 2006

Why did she do it? Why did the nanny in Larisa Sadilova’s third film, Babysitter Required, spy on everyone at the country house, tell horror stories to the child, teach her bad language, turn her into a little monster, sow discord between the parents with silent phone calls and a planted lipstick? Why did she get rid of the nice Uzbek workers? Why did she falsely accuse her employer of rape and then sleep with his father, just to demand alimony? Depending upon whether you are satisfied with some of the Russian critics’ and the directors’ explanation that the nanny “got carried away” with her nasty trickery (the untranslatable Russian word pakostnitsa was used), or if you believe that mainstream feature films (which this clearly purports to be) should have a coherent narrative structure and reasonably clear character motivation, you will either see this film as a failed effort of an extremely talented director or another strong contender for the international festival circuit. Or both. The jury is still out; the film has failed to win any major prizes yet, but it is only beginning its tour of festivals, Sadilova’s by now well-established home territory.

This eagerly awaited film premiered at the Open Russian Film Festival in Sochi, where seven years earlier Sadilova’s film Happy Birthday (S dnem rozhdeniia!, 1998) not only took top honors in the debut category, but was considered by many the best film of the festival and the discovery of the year. Happy Birthday went on to win some 20 national and international prizes, and established Sadilova in Russia and on the festival circuit as a major new talent. Four years later, her second film, With Love, Lilly (S liubov'iu, Lilia, 2002) also garnered a number of prizes, taking top honors at the Rotterdam Film Festival. It was screened in Sochi out-of-competition in 2003, but again to high critical acclaim. Sadilova seemed to have beaten the “second-film” curse, so expectations were high when her third film opened in Sochi last summer. This time, however, the film not only failed to win any of the major prizes, but the jury’s “special mention” for the performance of the six-year-old girl could not make up for the more obvious oversight of the lead actress, Marina Zubanova, who played the nanny. In fact, the jury’s refusal to make an award in the best actress category created a minor scandal at the end of the festival.

Marina Zubanova had been an unknown actress at the Moscow Theater of the Young Spectator when Sadilova (herself a trained actress with uncanny casting abilities) chose her for the lead in With Love, Lilly. Zubanova went on to earn a number of best actress awards for her delicately nuanced performance of a plain, good-hearted, idealistic working-class Russian “everywoman.” The failure to recognize her acting in Babysitter Required points, perhaps tellingly, to a major problem in the film: the director’s seeming inability or disinterest in defining the lead character and providing some understandable motivation for her actions. In her press conference in Sochi, Sadilova was quite nonchalant in answering the question “What made the nanny do it?” saying that she knew of people who started doing bad things and then just got carried away (ikh poneslo). To which some critics at Sochi quipped that Sadilova herself got “carried away” and couldn’t stop piling on the nanny’s nasty actions. As a result, Zubanova herself at times seems a bit lost in the film, despite her good acting.

An additional problem for the critics who had, of course, all seen With Love, Lilly, is that Zubanova’s nanny at first seems a bit like Lilly: a nice, simple, provincial, young woman who, thanks to her aunt, gets a job taking care of the cute, but spoiled child of a well-to-do, if not wealthy, couple who are building a country house. Galia tells her would-be employer that she wants to become a nanny because teaching doesn’t pay well enough to live on. In this instance the viewer doesn’t question her motivation because it unfortunately reflects economic reality in today’s Russia. But those who are predisposed to seeing a contemporary social drama of class stratification and exploitation of the newly impoverished former professionals by bad “new Russians” are in for a surprise. For the young couple, Vera and Andrei, as the aunt, their housekeeper, tells it—believably played by Raisa Riazanova, famous for her good-girl role in the Soviet classic Moscow Does Not Believe in Tears (dir. Vladimir Men'shov, 1980)—are good people who have made it on their own. Their house is rustic, their outbuildings made of simple wood, not the elaborate stone or brick “cottages” built by Russia’s new elites. The director used the construction of her own country house as a live set and noted in interviews that her characters, like herself, are not “new Russians,” but are part of the new rising middle class who have recently begun to “earn money, improve their lives… build houses and deal with new problems.” And she added that she herself had come up against all the problems involved in building a house and hiring people: “Yesterday’s normal working people are today hiring help to build their houses and look after their children.” (Informkino) It is this new social situation that she wants to explore.

But she cannot decide whether the film is a social or psychological drama, on the one hand, or an old-fashioned thriller where a stranger arrives to wreak havoc, on the other. The nanny, for all her initial seeming niceness, begins to spy on her employers and the Uzbeks working in the yard, while at the same time playing secret games and creating a pact with the child, Alia, teaching her bad language and telling her scary, cruel stories, which result in serious anti-social behavior in the child: she curses, kills a frog needlessly, and attacks other children in the playground. Despite the fact that the nanny scolds the child for killing the frog, the viewer becomes increasingly convinced that the nanny is the very cause of the child’s aggression. In fact, the best scenes and the best exchanges in the film are between the nanny and her charge, justifying the Sochi jury’s decision to give six-year-old Ira Shipova, a real trooper, special mention. Seeing a competitor for the child’s affection in a kindly Uzbek worker, the nanny gets rid of the illegal work crew by reporting them to the police. She tellingly exhibits her deeper xenophobic attitude to these non-Russians by grabbing an Uzbek hat, a gift to the child, throwing it away, and calling it “alien” (chuzhoe). Her employers, by comparison, treat their Uzbek workers with respect, something else that puts them in the good-guy category.

The nanny increasingly takes every opportunity to sow discord in the family: calling the wife and silently hanging up; when her employer is dead-drunk on his birthday she plants herself naked next to him and then falsely accuses him of rape. It is possible to ask where was the jealous wife in all this? Didn’t she notice that her husband did not come to bed that night? Oh, but never mind… This whole “rape and extortion” plot line becomes increasingly far-fetched as the nanny proceeds to sleep with her employer’s father, gets pregnant, and threatens to tell all in order to cause the employer’s mother a second heart attack. She collects her extortion sum of $30,000 and disappears. Needless to say, the wife, in the meantime, has taken the child and left the idyllic country house, although only temporarily. For in the end, the family is reunited around the dinner table, three generations strong, but with a new housekeeper; work on the yard is proceeding too, albeit with new workers; and even the child is redeemed when she runs to hug the Uzbek worker as he leaves. But the viewer is left with a lot of unanswered questions, all centering on the motivation for the nanny’s increasingly outlandish and preposterous behavior.

We ask again: What made her do it? Was it money, then, pure greed? Or was it the conversation the nanny overhears between the employers about her poor taste in clothes and large backside? Was it the old-fashioned class envy of the “haves” by the “have-nots”? Economic and social dislocation? Pure evil? Or all of the above? The film, in fact, suffers from potential motivational overload at the same time that there is no satisfactory motivation provided for any of the nanny’s actions.

The problem of motivation points to the larger problem of the film’s genre: social drama? Psychological thriller? In a discussion of the film published in Art of Cinema (Iskusstvo kino), Elena Stishova notes that in Babysitter Required (trebuetsia niania) it is genre that is required/needed (trebuetsia zhanr). She accuses Sadilova of having no “model” for the film’s actions, for not having thought through anything except the planes repeatedly flying overhead. (9, 2005: 13). This is perhaps too harsh a judgment of the film, but, as another critic put it succinctly: “Sadilova the script-writer has let down Sadilova the director.” (Radio Mayak) In fact, the most serious script problem in the film is the disappearing line of the detective whom the husband hires to follow the nanny. We wait for the detective to find out something of interest, but instead he simply drops out; we learn nothing at all about the nanny and, thus, have no closure or true resolution of her plot line. Had she done this before, for example?

Despite being uneven and weaker than her first two films, Babysitter Required is still a Sadilova film—professionally directed, excellently cast, expertly shot, creating a believable microcosm of Russian society, with funny, poignant, and always true-to-life dialogue. Babysitter Required forms a kind of cinematic triptych with Happy Birthday and With Love, Lilly. All are clear-eyed, unflinching yet sympathetic explorations of both the yet-unchanged remnants of Soviet life and the new, rapidly changing post-Soviet Russian society. The newest film, however, fundamentally alters the relationship between the setting and the characters that inhabit it.

Shot in black and white, the docu-drama Happy Birthday is set in a real run-down maternity hospital, whose horrors Sadilova herself shared with her characters: the pealing paint, the rusty beds, the lack of food, the harsh treatment by the nurses. But in this physically and metaphorically dark setting, the women create bonds across class, economic and educational boundaries, and share the pain, the miracle, and the human triumph of childbirth. Sadilova tells of writing down all the stories she heard when she herself was giving birth to her first child. In addition to the real-life dialogue, her use of non-professional actors and real settings give this and her subsequent films an authenticity rarely experienced in films.

With Love, Lilly—the tragi-comic story of a still-idealistic, middle-aged, plain but sweet factory-worker searching for love and a husband—was shot on location, again in the provinces, and partly set in an unforgettable chicken factory. No one could miss the metaphoric connections between the chickens off to be slaughtered and the women who do that work only to be sacrificed at home to their men. But despite the terrible working conditions in the Soviet-era factory and the dark, cramped, Soviet-style apartment in which the heroine lives (in the provinces not much has changed since Soviet times), Lilly survives and finds true love. The film was a successful tongue-in-cheek updating of 1980s Soviet melodramas about a lonely woman in search of love, as well as a pointed commentary on the continuing difficulties of women’s lives, then and now. Most importantly, the human spirit once again triumphs over and trumps the dark and unpleasant physical reality.

In Babysitter Required, Sadilova at first glance seems again to employ what had worked for her in the first two films. She uses real settings, this time her own unfinished country home, shooting much of the film’s country scenes in the provinces. She herself came from the provinces, which she has often said are the real Russia, not its shiny superficial capital Moscow. Noticeable in all her films is the absence of the big city, of Moscow itself, although it is clear that the idyllic country enclave both Sadilova and the heroes of Babysitter Required are building is now part of the extended exurbs of the capital. When the hero drives to work, he passes rows upon rows of bright, newly-built homes along the road. The planes that repeatedly fly overhead and drown out the conversations in and outside of the country house, both in real life and in the film, are more than slightly telling.

Unlike the first two films, however, the sets are no longer run-down Soviet-era buildings, streets, and parks, but a freshly-built, comfortable, warm, wooden house with a spacious porch and retro-feel outbuildings (the wife in the film uses the somewhat old-fashioned term fligel' when referring to one of these tiny cottages). These new, upwardly mobile, and successful professionals (as well as Sadilova herself) seem to be looking back to the warmth and comfort of country houses of pre-Soviet times. The country dachas, where the hero’s parents and the nanny’s aunt live, are simple; the countryside itself is quite beautiful. But these pleasant settings hide human fear, envy, and instability caused by the country’s physical, economic, and spiritual transformation. The nanny is perhaps best understood within this symbolic context, embodying in her actions the inexplicable sense of the loss of all certainties of Soviet life. This may be the answer to our so-far fruitless search in this film for character motivation as demanded by cinematic convention. The power of sisterhood and the triumph of the human spirit over adversity, so clear in Sadilova’s first two films, are now either absent or more circumscribed. While the family reunites at the film’s end, the nanny has done her work and the only unequivocally good characters in the film are gone: the hard-working housekeeper (the nanny’s aunt) has apparently been fired and the gentle Uzbek builder is being deported. This is the new post-Soviet reality for working class folks.

In Babysitter Required Sadilova as scriptwriter may not have been sure of the genre of her film, may have dropped a couple of narrative lines, and been unclear on motivation, but Sadilova as director—with her unfailing ear and eye for the changes around her, her ability to create real settings and real-life believable characters (even getting stars of the Russian screen like Aleksei Makarov to play convincingly against type)—offers, in the end, a cautionary tale about the complex economic and social realities of the new Russia. In fact, in a prescient case of life imitating art, just recently on Russian TV’s Channel One, there was an eye-opening documentary on the mistreatment of children by hired nannies and the increasing use of video cameras to track their behavior—something that is, in fact, discussed by characters in the film!
Whatever happened to the extended Russian family and the unpaid Russian grandmothers (babushkas) who unselfishly raised generations of children? Sadilova’s film, then, raises important questions about the changing nature of the family itself in post-Soviet times.

One thing is for certain: Larisa Sadilova remains one of the best directors of the 40-something generation which came of age as the Soviet Union began to fall apart and whose members have built their lives and careers in these uncertain times. Her films provide a road map for negotiating the terrain of the new Russia.

Vida Johnson (Tufts University)

Babysitter Required, Russia, 2005
Color, 110 minutes
Director: Larisa Sadilova
Screenplay: Larisa Sadilova
Cinematography: Anatolii Petriga
Art Director: Manzura Ul'dzhabaeva
Cast: Marina Zubanova, Aleksei Makarov, Viktoriia Isakova, Ira Shipova, Raisa Riazanova, Valerii Barinov
Producer: Vladimir Tiurin
Production: Richmond

Larisa Sadilova: Babysitter Required (Trebuetsia niania), 2005

reviewed by Vida Johnson© 2006

Updated: 17 Jan 06