Ramil' Salakhutdinov: Spinning inside the Ring Road (Kruzhenie v predelakh kol'tsevoi, 2006)

reviewed by Greg Dolgopolov© 2008

Brownian Motion: Ramil' Salakhutdinov's Spinning inside the Ring Road

Randomness, loneliness, disconnected stories floating in a gilded cage of indeterminacy, the melancholia of monotony, a struggle between fate and chance that culminates in the recognition of a phenetic species' suicidal ritual. These are the prevailing themes of Ramil' Salakhutdinov's Spinning inside the Ring Road . It would be fair to say that there are few films that attempt to explore particle theory or model Brownian motion in quite the same way as this film does in extrapolating a mathematical model as a quotidian metaphor for the contemporary world. It is unexpectedly old-fashioned—socially conscious, chromatically bleak, art house existentialism. Yet it captures a surprisingly contemporary milieu: drugs, business, media, crime, and terrorism form the backdrop to a delicate ethical exploration of how to live in an arbitrary, formless space. The film's piercing character study and multi-narrative structure connects disparate urban denizens into a meandering, inconclusive metaphysical journey.

Washing his face in the cool waters of a pond and then gazing from the embankment across the sprawling building site at the edge of town, the linen-suited banker exclaims to his long-term client, the developer Roman Belkovskii: “Its good here. I hate to leave. Over there, it's all the same, all routine.” Belkovskii gazes into the distance. He then walks down and looking up at his banker, hands in pocket, wearily proclaims: “Yes we're always spinning. It's some sort of Brownian movement with us…” After a long pause, he sighs, “a chasm…” The banker cheerfully responds: ”Relax, Roman, everything will be alright.” In the randomness of Brownian motion the future is unknowable. This means that even if the initial condition is known, there are innumerable possibilities of development. But some paths are more probable than others.

It is a compelling image: Brownian motion describes the random interaction of molecules, which makes an appropriate allegory for the apparent futility of finding communion in an urban sprawl. This struggle creates the perpetual motion machine that is run on chance. The film is an intuitive metaphor that captures a random group of people and their unsystematic movements as they struggle for determinacy while suspended in a metropolitan Petri dish. It is a treatise on Brownian motion that takes into account perpetual Slavic fatalism.

Is it important to know the plot in a fragmentary, multi-narrative existential drama? Well, for what it's worth: Roman Belkovskii is a s uccessful businessman. He plans on building a new cultural entertainment development, Happy City, but his progress is blocked by the deceitful ploy of a university acquaintance. He is stressed and at wits end trying to figure out where to get extra money or time to solve his problem. But all is not lost. Roman has only to give the sign and his henchmen will do the rest. But he wavers…

Meanwhile his neglected wife, struggling with domestic boredom meets up with an old classmate who professes his love for her… Parallel stories unravel unsystematically. At the TV studio where Roman was heading to do an interview, a rumpled television journalist who presents Heartfelt, a program that reunites long lost families in front of the studio audience, fails to notice that his own daughter has become a drug addict… She poses as a census officer and attempts to rob a man. But he has nothing to steal. He has just lost his wife to a terrorist bombing in a café. Wandering aimlessly, he shares a cigarette with a savant in sandals by the pond at the building site. The savant's slingshot was destroyed by Roman's head of security, and he needs it to scare away the crows that every migratory season keep eating the duck eggs. But the ducks keep coming back…

The connections between these people are random and seemingly insignificant. They all have their own pain and private preoccupations. This is no 21 Grams (dir. Alejandro González Iñárritu, 2003)—they do not all meet in a great denouement. Some are bound by familial ties; others are connected by arbitrary threads or fine fleeting moments. Contrary to the often portrayed experience of urban disconnectedness, this film demonstrates that by virtue of opposing energies and seemingly aimless motion, people are connected, suspended in the same urban ooze in their chance efforts to live, to have meaning, to be happy…

Looking at the film's poster one would be forgiven for thinking that this was just another film that invokes the circles of hell metaphor or the celebrated Sartrean adage for present day Russia. Spinning inside the Ring Road does not suggest purgatory, but it does feature the quotidian trauma of loneliness. If “hell is other people,” then what sort of space constitutes their absence? The characters are all suffering from a sense of community disconnectedness. Perhaps this is a perverse symptom derived from years of forced collectivism. But this search for communion is at the core of this ethically conscious film.

Ethics needs surprises to be effective in a dramatic context and two scenes stand out for their originality and ethical play. Two TV journalists burst into the apartment of the man who recently lost his wife, wanting to question him about the effects of the crime. It is a startling scene that plays against our expectations. Instead of the raw emotion that we expect to be drawn out by pushy crime reporters, we have nothing… just the apologetic fumbling of the man who expresses no feeling of loss other than the regret that the journalists must have made a mistake. He nonchalantly points to the bedroom claiming that his wife is alive, that she has just gone to lie down and must have fallen asleep. This failure of the journalists to achieve an emotional climax is hilarious. But the scene after they leave sees the man sitting outside her bedroom talking to her and it gradually becomes apparent that he is talking to her as if she is still alive; hugging the vacuum cleaner, berating her, admonishing… it makes your skin crawl.

The moral core of the film rests on the unexpected solution or more importantly the Hamlet-like process that Roman goes through to solve his “credit problem.” Wearing a permanent frown of the world-weary, he is variously advised as to the only solution to get rid of his competitor. We have become accustomed to New Russians solving all their business problems easily, decisively, with masculine efficiency and inevitable violence. The cinematic standard has been that if a competitor gets in the way, might is always right. It may be worth digressing to another part of the film and to quote his wife's former classmate and lover's theory on business, which he shares with her on the park bench having realized that his declaration of love has been in vain:

You're husband is probably not a bad man, but you know, businessmen are bad husbands and bad friends; it's because of their work. We live in a vacuum, disguised by success, suffocating in our own callousness and knowing that we have nothing left but a deep longing.

Roman, conscious of living in a vacuum, meets a couple of willing hardheads at an outdoor café in the midday heat. They tenderly offer to fix his obstacle. All Roman has to do is nod and it will be done for him quickly and efficiently. After a beautifully staged pause, a crow's point of view of the scene, and a delicate rack focus, Roman barely audibly curses the men. What a brilliantly developed moment. There is no violence, just a refusal to operate by established immoral standards. It forces viewers to evaluate their expectations and question what Roman will do next. How will he get out of his predicament? The very Russian question of “what is to be done” becomes ethical rather than operational. However, it is seemingly the most illogical characters that actually do something. As the sandal-wearing savant, quietly and without fuss, wanders around the building site with his crow-scaring slingshot, he grumbles in the direction of Roman and the workers: “You think you are all so smart.” The foreman says partially to himself and as a thematic aside to the audience: “That's no German for you, that's a Russian. No logic, only a knot of nerves.” But there is logic in the irrational Russian soul, and the film explores the range of possibilities in a complex mathematical model. I suspect that this story of urban Russian alienation will make more sense to a domestic audience and perhaps it is worth keeping this option open.

This is Salakhutdinov's (b.1963) first feature film following the success of his 45-minute audience prize winning short film, On the Eve (Nakanune, 2002). As a graduate of Aleksei German's workshop, there is an expectation of a pedigree that eschews glossiness in favor of serious, complex, and morally challenging films. [1] The work is serious, perhaps too serious to attain that searing effect of spiritual awakening. He directs with confidence as witnessed by some unusual shot compositions and potent selections of visual detail and long shots that allow characters to develop unhurriedly within their own emotional space.

Salakhutdinov garners clear and even performances from his ensemble, yet this uniformity does not seem to fit comfortably with enacting random theory and tends towards sameness. Perhaps this monotony is part of the author's intent, but it may not be entirely satisfying for an audience trained in expecting dramatic dynamism. The intricate narrative threads are well handled and the character detail is stunning with a few absolute standout scenes. The pacing, however, is ponderous. Y ou know this is an art house film pretty quickly: from atmospheric long takes and oblique narrative development with key characters filmed in wide-shot to indolent fade outs showing the fragmentary nature of communication. Forget about a “satisfying” conclusion. But there are dividends on a second viewing. The director's voice is not overwhelming, but it does announce in a sophisticated way that all this flitting around is meaningful and symbolic. The final scene where the widower listens to the savant explain his process of saving the duck eggs from the crows is a stunning but perhaps too obvious declaration of metaphor. Yet it feels authentic and potent in a meditated, considered, and unpretentious way. There are resonances of Kira Muratova's Asthenic Syndrome (Astenicheskii sindrom, 1989), with her depiction of fractured, traumatized lives in an atmosphere of existential not urban decay and a fascination with animals that somehow rise above metaphor. Characters do not really connect directly but thematically. They coexist in the same urban fluid, linking in a circuitous pivot editing structure that is not quite as pointedly clever as Karen Shakhnazarov's technique in Day of the Full Moon (Den' polnoluniia, 1998), but one that nonetheless generates an organic, complex model of the particles' specific pressures and pain.

Spinning inside the Ring Road is unexpected. It is not immediately likeable, daubed in a washed out color spectrum, with art house pacing and complex characters. But it is not a dark existential drama without redemption; indeed, the tone of the conclusion is rather bright—Berkovskii solves his problems in a traditional Russian manner, the savant aids the grief stricken widower, the TV journalist is reunited with his daughter… it seems that even in random motion, some positives emerge, even if only briefly… and some paths are more probable than others.

Greg Dolgopolov
University of New South Wales, Australia

images from ruskino.ru

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1] See Igor' Mikhailov, “Kruzhenie v predelakh kol'tsevoi (2007)”, and his comparison of the students of German and Bondarchuk, in Kinoafisha.Ru.

Spinning inside the Ring Road, Russia, 2006
Color, 112 minutes, 35mm, Dolby Digital
Director: Ramil Salakhutdinov
Scriptwriters: Ramil Salakhutdinov, Mikhail Trofimenko, with the participation of Oleg Kovalov
Cinematography: Aleksandr Kuznetsov
Artistic Directors: Aleksei German, Svetlana Karmalita
Cast: Dmitrii Vorob'ev, Svetlana Pis'michenko, Oleg Kovalov, Elena Popova, Dmitrii Voronets, Konstantin Burdukov, Aleksei Barabash.
Producer: Viktor Izvekov
Production: Sever Film Company, with support from the Federal Agency for Culture and Cinema

Best Film award at the Window on Europe Festival in Vyborg 2006

Ramil' Salakhutdinov: Spinning inside the Ring Road (Kruzhenie v predelakh kol'tsevoi, 2006)

reviewed by Greg Dolgopolov© 2008

Updated: 09 Jan 08