Vladimir Sivkov: Sweet Delight (Inzeen'—Malina, 2007)

reviewed by Daniel H. Wild© 2008

Veteran scriptwriter and documentary filmmaker Vladimir Sivkov's feature film debut Sweet Delight, which was shown this year at Sochi as Inzeen'—Raspberry and in Rotterdam as Inzeyen—Sweet Delight , introduces its protagonist with a remarkable three-and-a-half minute continuous medium long shot. A young man, Aleksei, as we later learn, has awoken from a sweet dream, and, having relieved himself, is now staring at a blemish on the wall of his apartment. Bare-chested, and obviously inspired by a book with illustrations of Marc Chagall at his bedside, he proceeds to draw on the wall with a pencil. As we observe his attempts to replicate the faux naïve art of Chagall, there is no visual interruption through editing or any aural embellishments with music. There is only the sound of noisy arguments outside his home, the scratches of the pencil and the artistic process itself, which Aleksei reproduces faithfully in intense absorption with his mouth agape. Just as his gaze focuses on the child-like drawing of an angelic herald that emerges from his hands, the camera lingers eagerly on his enraptured seminude state of innocence.

Can this moment of infantile creative expression convey a deeper sense of meaning? A film that has the audacity to begin with such a long-winded depiction of regressive amateur imagination combined with an unabashed interest in the naked male body must either believe that its subsequent direction will be powerful enough to engage its viewers with promises of insightful and intriguing representations to come or possess an unshakeable faith in its inherent charm from the outset. Moreover, as announced in the opening credits, Sweet Delight is presented by the Kazan' Film Studio, a name choice that should not go unnoticed under these circumstances. With its eponymous reference to the city, the production studio's name threatens to indicate an anachronistic return to markers of regional or ethnic identity as a means for categorizing a film, while labeling its product as a merely colorful contribution from the provincial hinterland for the center. But the film is not set in Tatarstan. Indeed, while Sweet Delight ostensibly takes place in the town of Inza near Ul'ianovsk, any localizable geographical sense is, in fact, more abstracted and distilled into what the film posits as the essential characteristics of a self-contained Russian village community that can be extended into an inquiry on the contemporary state of the Russian “soul” itself. Nonetheless, Sweet Delight proves to be a film that unfolds into a mosaic of considerable complexity and nuance by reflecting on the larger spiritual purpose of creativity and the function of art for the community; but this potential is certainly not evident from its opening sequence.

The film is structured into eight vignettes or episodic chapters, each identified with a one-word topic such as “Weights,” “Paris,” “Sand,” or “House.” These eight to ten minute segments are specifically contemporary (marked, for example, by a portrait of Putin and current slang expressions), but they also invoke a timeless absence of change through their depiction of the daily rituals of village life and its familiar sounds. They all involve the young man from the opening sequence, thirty-some Aleksei Pankratov, who is the Head of the Cultural Department of the Inza District, as he interacts with quirky local figures from his village in various ways. Despite his bureaucratic position as an administrator and regulator of culture, Aleksei is a self-absorbed and adolescent introvert who does not yet know his purpose in life. He is not alone in this, since the members of his generation and the young teenagers of his community aimlessly amuse themselves with various pursuits that they comment on with youthful jargon. He encounters a wealthy and jaded collector of art, who muses on the existence of the “Russian provincial avant-garde,” envisions the first museum of Russian erotic art, and comments in English to Aleksei that museums store “useless things” that then “get stored in people's minds in Russia.” Aleksei dabbles in hobbies such as paragliding or archaeology that might provide him with a different perspective from above or below. He follows a procession behind a “holy fool” who wipes his ass with dollar bills in one of the most concise expressions of the “Russian provincial avant-garde.” Bored kids play a variation of Russian roulette, which involves dancing around a campfire while throwing bullets into the flames. This youthful ennui and arrested development is echoed, in turn, by the drunken stumblings of two old nightshift workers in an engine room who attempt to play roulette on the job while they can barely remain upright and the rising pressure gauges behind them are ignored. Aleksei shows his collection of angelic dolls to a teenage boy who is unimpressed and thinks they are “transformers.” They stealthily observe an old Central Asian refugee, whose stoic Muslim prayers are punctuated by the incessant and decidedly infidel barks of a dog outside.

This moment of contrast between the familiar and mundane and a timeless yet strange ritual is emblematic for the overall structure of the seemingly random episodes that follow no particular order. For each meaningless and superficial way of life that the characters around Aleksei lead, the film posits a contrasting force that derives its significance from ritual or habit. The central figure who embodies this difference is the real-life artist Katia Medvedeva, who makes her home in a village near Riazan', and whose naïvely iconic paintings are displayed in a lengthy montage sequence that is both lyrical and melancholy as she remembers her life in images. Medvedeva plays a local artist Katia in the film, and she is acknowledged with an appreciative quote of her work by Marc Chagall at the conclusion of the film. Katia chides Aleksei for his lack of understanding by telling him about “inzeyen,” the Erzyan or Volgaic Finnish word for “raspberry.” The word is, as she says, to be intoned very slowly and deliberately with spoons hung around one's ears. At first, her incantation seems to be another example of a quirky naïve gesture by an old artist, but the sound of her motherly voice and the clinking of the spoons give way to the majestic sounds of church bells. Katia teaches Aleksei the secular catechism of folklore. This, ultimately, is how the film understands the purpose of culture as a means to commemorate shared habits. It is a deeply conservative notion of culture as a communal form of ritual, for which Aleksei will need to learn to become the custodian.

Emphasizing an art form whose naïve or whimsical ornamental expressions provide the foundation for a cohesive social order through constant repetition in the absence of meaning reduces the position of the artist to that of a village chronicler. In this respect, to echo the film's continuous references to Chagall, the film might as well be called “I and the Village.” Such cultural politics may worry those invested in the more disturbing rather than the comforting potentials of art or those who value citizenship over and against the concept of community. But the film is neither reductive nor exclusionary in its appeal to a shared and habituated behavior. Any film that can counterbalance a celebration of bawdy Russian chastushkas with lengthy depictions of the consumption of food and weave in tender motifs of homoeroticism alongside subtle allusions to the Jewish culture of the shtetl is more complex and contradictory in its communal imagination of home than its intended declarations might suggest.

Sweet Delight ends on a brilliantly visualized note of such contradictions. Aleksei attends singing auditions at a school for deaf-mute children. We hear only a long, undulating monotone while young girls sing and gesture emphatically a beautiful folk song whose sentiments are clearly understandable despite the absence of music. Later in his office he repeats Katia's incantation and the film suggests that the quotidian routine of life in his village begins anew. Yet this time there is something different about Aleksei as he leaves and walks away from his community by himself.

Daniel H. Wild
New York

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Sweet Delight, Tatarstan Republic (Russian Federation), 2007
Color, 75 minutes
Director: Vladimir Sivkov
Scriptwriter: Denis Osokin, Vladimir Sivkov
Cinematography: Sergei Litovets
Production design: Maia Khvan
Music: Tatiania Litovets
Cast: Pavel Gustov, Ekaterina Medvedeva, Ekaterina Stoliar, Konstantin Malkov, Aleksandr Krainov, Polina Logacheva, Georgii Vlasenko
Producer: Mikhail Mikhailov
Production: Kazan' Film Studios, with support from the Federal Agency for Culture and Cinema

Vladimir Sivkov: Sweet Delight (Inzeen'—Malina, 2007)

reviewed by Daniel H. Wild© 2008

Updated: 10 Jan 08