Marina Razbezhkina: The Hollow (Iar, 2007)

reviewed by Rimgaila Salys © 2008

“Russia is a Pagan Country”: Marina Razbezhkina's The Hollow

Director Marina Razbezhkina is an established documentary filmmaker—Marcel Marceau (2003), Simply Life (Prosto zhizn' 2002), Gennadii Aigi (2001), Heirs of Heaven (Nasledniki raia, 1997), Concert by Request (Kontsert po zaiavkam, 1991)—who has also, through her teaching at the Internews Film and TV School and other institutions, influenced Russia's younger generation of documentary filmmakers, including most of the Kino.doc group. Her first fiction film Harvest Time (Vremia zhatvy, 2004) was acclaimed both in Russia and Europe, receiving the FIPRESCI award at the Moscow International Film Festival, the Grand Prix at Window to Europe (2004), and several European awards. The Hollow won a Kinotavr award for Anton Silaev's music, but critics have written very little about the film, probably because it is difficult, dense, confusing, and smacks depressingly of a now unpopular village chernukha. The message of Razbezhkina's highly individualistic film, with its unequivocal, unvarnished historical framing of the national character, implicitly contradicts the congratulatory self-image of Putin's Russia. How could it be popular?

Razbezhkina's first film proposal after Harvest Time , a script by Mariia Saprykina, was refused government financial assistance from the Federal Agency for Culture and Cinema also for reasons of chernukha. She then shot two documentary films—A Foreign Land (Chuzhaia strana, 2004), the story of a woman acquaintance from her native Kazan' who emigrates to Holland in search of a better life, and Vacation (Kanikuly, 2005) about Khanty-Mansi children. The original script for The Hollow, written by Pavel Finn and Lidiia Bobrova, was offered to Razbezhkina by Lenfil'm after Bobrova decided not to undertake the project. Realizing that this was her topic, Razbezhkina agreed to make the film, but rewrote the entire script (Shervud). The Hollow was shot in the Tver' district, in the village of Sukhoplachevo (“Dry Weeping”!) with its four houses, using local villagers in crowd scenes. Razbezhkina's film is a free adaptation of Sergei Esenin's 1915 semi-autobiographical novella of the same title, in which the twenty-year old poet, through his fictional hero, tentatively staged his future break with his native village and move to the city as the only cultural locus in which he could realize his potential.

The Hollow tells the story of Konstantin Karev (strong acting by Mikhail Evlanov, who starred in Dmitrii Meskhiev's Our Own [Svoi, 2004]), an educated, sensitive young peasant, who is pressured into a loveless marriage by his mother (Galina Volkova), despite his passion for another village girl, Palaga. After catching his wife Anna (Svetlana Obidina) with their hired hand and realizing that he is completely indifferent to her doings, Karev abandons his homestead and becomes an itinerant hunter. A year later he returns to the district and almost dies attempting to save a drowning man. Because they never find Karev's body, the villagers assume that he has now died, but he survives, only to disappear again from the village that holds his spirit hostage: “Now I don't exist. That means I'm free” (“Teper' menia net. Znachit ia svoboden”). In the forest he comes upon the miller Afonia (Sergei Gamov), who mourns his beloved little nephew, killed in a hunting accident. Karev settles with the miller, takes in Aksiutka (Roman Artem'ev), a petty thief and vagrant, and falls in love with Limpiada (a mediocre debut appearance by Polina Filonenko), a young girl brought up by her brother in the forest hollow. In the meantime, Anna has given birth to a sickly baby, who is nevertheless, after Karev's supposed death, her only hope. However, Karev spies her drunk at a village dance and runs away, consumed by guilt. After the baby's death, Anna drowns herself and Karev now turns to Limpiada. As the miller, Aksiutka, and others close to him die, Karev is overcome with primal terror: “It's the hollow, its magic, its curse; I'm afraid, I have to flee here as soon as possible” (“Eto iar, ego koldovstvo, ego zakliatie, mne stalo strashno, nado skoree bezhat' otsiuda”). But Limpiada refuses to leave the hollow and Karev departs alone. She dies attempting to abort Karev's child, and Karev, ignorant of her plight, departs the hollow forever.

A warning: It is almost impossible, especially for foreign viewers, to understand the narrative of The Hollow without first reading Esenin's novella. Razbezhkina consciously transfers aspects of Esenin's prose form and style to the screen. The novella is completely anti-psychological, narrates without explaining, abounds in dialectisms, and proceeds in short episodes providing vignettes of different characters who temporarily displace Karev from center stage and whose connection to him is initially unclear. The cinematic The Hollow absorbs the young Esenin's stylistics and the viewer must adjust. Secondly, Razbezhkina consciously eschews the classical paradigm of mainstream western cinema (chronological cause and effect narrative), employing instead a more horizontal and symbolically cyclical logic, more akin to the hidden causalities operative in Asian cinema.[1] The scene of Karev's near drowning is followed by an old man's tale of a mermaid's (rusalka) near seduction of another drowning man from the village (the folkloric transition from earth to the land of the dead), foreshadowing Karev's later involvement with his woods rusalka, Limpiada. Aksiutka's fictional tale of murdering a woman pilgrim resonates with the actual murder of Karev's mother by a wandering beggar-woman. A moon wreathed in dark clouds, strongly associated with death in East Slavic folk belief, marks episodes of death and dying, while repeatedly returning the viewer to the nocturnal opening scenes of the film.

As a folklorist and documentary filmmaker, Razbezhkina both enlarges upon and augments Esenin's incidental descriptions of folk beliefs and customs in the novella: a spell to remove the evil eye, the rusalka, the “stripling” (“nedorostochek”) folk song (parsing the relationship of peasant widows with boy workers), traditional dancing, fairytale references, and phrasing. However, the director also radically alters the deep structure of Esenin's masculine narrative by constructing the village, in its archaic essence, as feminine via the film's opening episode of opakhivanie, a ritual practiced to protect the village against cattle plague (Petrukhin 287-8). Old and young village women remove their crosses and clothes, and loosen their hair, assuming the attributes of witches. With the rising of the moon, they walk around the edges of the settlement, banging pots and other household or agricultural items, establishing a protective magic circle around the village, and seeking the evil spirit who has brought on the disease. Whoever comes into their path is identified as the demon and may be brutally beaten.[2] The narrative of the fatherless Karev's alienation and ultimate escape from the village, in spite of the lovers, friends, and beloved river that hold him there, reproduces the confrontation of the male hero with the Great Mother goddess, who like all archetypes, is double-coded: Mother-Earth, a brutal force that destroys, tempts, and seduces, yet also nurtures and protects.[3] Karev struggles to separate himself from the collective body of the village-hollow, which oppresses and destroys, but at the same time must forfeit the life-giving grace of its archaic spiritual bond (dukhovnost'). The opakhivanie episode is eventually revealed as Karev's dream during the night before his forced marriage. Only in the dream, in which the village women identify him as the demon, does Karev recognize himself as alienated other.

The magic circle of the furrow protects from external enemies, but also encloses one within. Throughout the film, Karev struggles against the fatal attraction of the womb-like hollow: as a child in his opakhivanie dream, he is fascinated by the naked young women; he struggles with his passion for Palaga, who marries another and delights in tormenting Karev; his love for Limpiada, who is rooted in the forested hollow, threatens to trap him in the village. Other inhabitants, who submit to its power, die because they sacrifice themselves for those in the collective body, or cannot live on after the loss of loved ones: to save other villagers from arrest, an old peasant confesses to a crime he did not commit; Afonia dies on his mill wheel, grabbing at the treasured cap of his dead nephew; after the loss of her husband and son, Karev's mother becomes a pilgrim and seeks death; Anna drowns herself after the death of her baby. Only Karev, fearing its power, refuses to submit to the pull of the village and hollow. He will not submit to the collective body: “Don't subordinate yourself to an alien will. Don't cripple yourself for someone else. You must make life.” The wagon in which he leaves the village is driven by a middle-aged peasant woman, who informs him that he is escaping, which he refuses to admit: “No, you're fleeing.” When Karev asks her to stop so that he can light a cigarette away from the wind, she turns and spreads out her coat in front of him, as if mimicking the broad wingspan of a mother bird protecting her young. Karev leans in, lights the cigarette near her breasts, and they continue on, as the woman quietly sings the “baiu-baiushki baiu” lullaby. Karev dozes, leaning against her back, as did the miller's little nephew when Afonia brought him home, but gradually slips down to the bottom of the wagon in tormented sleep. Only at the end, then, does Karev acknowledge the protective aspect of the Great Mother archetype, but his escape, the severing of his roots that is so necessary to his survival, also carries the seeds of his doom.

The Hollow is one of several recent films—Gennadii Sidorov's Little Old Women (Starukhi, 2003), Il'ia Khrzhanovskii's 4 (2004), Razbezhkina's own Harvest Time—that take up the theme of peasant Russia. While preserving the self/other dichotomy of Little Old Women , The Hollow seeks to recover, for better and worse, the authentic identity of the Russian village, which, in Little Old Women and 4, is shown to have been largely destroyed. Razbezhkina sees Russia as a pagan land, in which this deepest level of culture has been overlaid by the strata of later religions and by secular civilization: “It seems to me that Russia is still a pagan country in all of its aspects. Paganism is deeply embedded in the mentality of the Russian people and has still not been eliminated. Pantheism is one of the benefits of this paganism. But there are also horrific minuses in the cruelty, which also takes on a political coloration” (qtd. Sichev). Razbezhkina's village and hollow thus encompass both poles of the ancient archetype. Nevertheless, the naked old women of The Hollow stand in opposition to Khrzhanovskii's village hags, for the carnivalistic, grotesque body of the latter is answered by the teleological nakedness of protective archaic ritual. Razbezhkina's village is not the land of the dead; death is simply always nearby, as a natural and inevitable part of life.

Rimgaila Salys
University of Colorado at Boulder

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1] See the director's conversation with Taiwanese filmmakers in Shervud.

2] Razbezhkina does not reproduce the women's harnessing themselves to a plow in order to plow a furrow around the village.

3] Jung notes that the mother archetype is always crossed in the male with the man's sexual counterpart, the anima (20). Hence, Karev's passionate involvement with women in the village.

Works Cited

Jung, C.G. “Psychological Aspects of the Mother Archetype.” In Four Archetypes. Trans. R.F.C. Hull. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1969.

Petrukhin, V. Ia. et al , eds. “Opakhivanie.” In Slavianskaia mifologiia. Moskva: Ellis Lak, 1995. 287-88.

Shervud, Ol'ga. “Marina Razbezhkina: ‘Mne govoriat—eto tak slozhno, artkhaus…'.” Film.Ru (13 June 2007).

Sichev, Sergei. “Rossiia—iazycheskaia strana.” Film.Ru (13 June 2007).

The Hollow, Russia, 2007
Color, 103 minutes
Director: Marina Razbezhkina
Scriptwriter: Pavel Finn, Lidiia Bobrova, with the participation of Marina Razbezhkina
Cinematography: Irina Ural'skaia
Art Direction: Sergei Rakutov, Sergei Nikol'skii
Music: Anton Silaev
Cast: Mikhail Evlanov, Polina Filonenko, Sergei Gamov, Galina Volkova, Svetlana Obidina
Producers: Ol'ga Agrafenina
Production: Kinometel'nitsa, Lenfil'm, with support from the Federal Agency for Culture and Cinema

Marina Razbezhkina: The Hollow (Iar, 2007)

reviewed by Rimgaila Salys © 2008

Updated: 09 Jan 08