KinoKultura: Issue 38 (2012)

The Conflict of Life and Death in Russian New Wave Cinema (2010/11)

ByTat’iana Moskvina-Iatsenko (Moscow)

chuzhayaThe final credits in Anton Bormatov’s film The Other (Chuzhaia) run over the disfigured corpses of the dead heroes, captured naturalistically in a medium-range shot. This stands in sharp contrast, for example, to the dead heroine Tania from Aleksei Fedorchenko’s Silent Souls (Ovsianki), who is filmed as if she had not died at all, but quietly fallen asleep. Fedorchenko and his scriptwriter Denis Osokin have organized the plot around a burial rite performed by two Merya: the husband-widower and director of a paper mill, Miron Alekseevich; and the photographer and colleague with the strange name Aist (Stork), both descendants of the degenerated tribe of the Meshchera Lowlands. The Merya used to burn the dead and scatter their ashes in the river so that the water of life could carry the dead person straight to paradise. Fortunately, drowning was not common practice to reach this paradise ahead of time. But the belief was firm that a person who had drowned involuntarily would be very happy in that other life.

The fear of death and its proximity, death as natural occurrence but often also violent (as in The Other, which centers around a crime) is the driving force of the majority of auteur films in 2010. Death can be personified, as in Sergei Loznitsa’s metaphoric My Joy (Schast’e moe) in the shape of the road police; it may penetrate every frame, as in Aleksei Popogrebskii’s film How I Ended this Summer (Kak ia provel etim letom) and Aleksei Balabanov’s The Stoker (Kochegar). In any case, death is ordinary, unheroic and inevitable. It forms the basic conflict of the narration: the conflict between life and death. According to the filmmakers, death is symptomatic and conceptual. Such an attitude towards death speaks of a new quality of post-perestroika consciousness: death has become an important coordinate of life and its ultimate result, as if people had rediscovered the law of retribution.

Testing the hero through the proximity of death, filmmakers check the condition of his soul and of the world. The artist does not diagnose, as before, but pronounces a judgement or verdict over the hero who finds himself in a Hamlet-like situation: “to be or not to be”. Depending on the task to confront, the colors of the narrative are chosen.

my joyThe allegorical space of Loznitsa’s My Joy occupies the borders of the visible and invisible world and creates a realm akin to purgatory. The protagonist—a trucker ferrying flour from A to B—finds himself in a bewitched place, where both his contemporaries and those who have long been dead walk side by side: gallows-birds and gastarbeiter from provincial markets walk alongside Soviet people who have been shot by the Red Army during the Great Patriotic War. The location for the transfer into the other world is the road checkpoint. The place attracts people of the same nature: malicious, degraded. The trucker, having lost his cargo and the state-owned truck, having lost his way and the meaning of life, finally deals with the torturers. In the spur of a moment he turns from victim into executioner. The hero’s revenge shows a senseless and ruthless revolt. The way of life, with its stupid infinity, reflects the filmmaker’s perception of the world as eternally progressing and senseless in its cruelty.

Svetlana Proskurina’s Truce (Peremirie) is saturated by roads: the protagonist Egor, also a trucker, travels around the open fields of his native village, continually getting caught up in situations from which a normal man would not escape alive. To survive, he needs the powers of the legendary Ilya Muromets or the fairy-tale hero Ivan the Fool. In the narrative structure of a modern fairy tale about an unlucky gawk a moral choice has to be made in order to test this strength.

The new sky is neither transformed nor studded in diamonds; it is suspended above the hero of the slow-moving film, Another Sky (Drugoe nebo) by Dmitrii Mamuliia. The heavy sky of the megapolis Moscow is hardly visible in the film. Alisher Khamidkhodzhaev’s unexpected and sharp angles show the sky in a fragmentary manner. Man is oppressed and caught in an alienated environment. The sky is only visible in the prologue, in the Tajik steppes, the boundless desert, where a pestilence has befallen the sheep and whence the homeless heroes come: the father and son have travelled to distant lands not to earn money, but to find Vasilisa the Beautiful, Ali’s wife and the boy’s mother, who has been stolen by Zmei Gorynych a long time ago.

In the minimalist Stoker, Balabanov’s Yakut (Mikhail Skriabin), the sapper-major who got shell-shocked in Afghanistan, hardly ever leaves the boiler-house, as if he had been immured in the window-less closet. Without much ado he allows the “good” Russians to burn the “bad” guys in the furnace, until he recognizes a lost shoe that has casually fallen on the floor and understands that they have burnt his beloved daughter. The Yakut is, perhaps, the most integral character of this range of films: clear and simple. First he believes in the honor of the war; then he trusts his brothers-in-arms from the Afghan war; and in the end, following the law of blood revenge, he kills his daughter’s murderers—the “bad” sniper and his ominous assistant who looks like Cyclops. The daughter had intended to marry the latter, but her rival, the sniper’s daughter, had set up her father to get rid of her rival with whom she runs a fur business that the young Yakut woman had devised. The ordinariness of the numerous violent deaths in a peaceful city turns into genuine horror.

summerPopogrebskii’s heroes, the chief of a meteorological station and a young volunteer, are an inch away from death during the entire film How I Ended this Summer, only to embrace in the end and forgive each other, knowing the inevitable outcome of the fatal disease they have contracted. Both had been exposed to radioactive waste from a piece of equipment dumped by the military on the old base. The space is filled with harsh and beautiful landscapes of the North, filmed in a poetical manner à la Flaherty by Pavel Kostomarov. Here, on the edge of the earth, in this world of infinity, man is an alien with “toys” from civilization that are helpless and useless, whether the computer games which the younger man plays or the exaggerated attention that the older man pays to the weather reports received from long out-of-date equipment. In extreme conditions, in isolation, alone, they cannot bear their own emptiness and act controllably; they are torn apart by fear. Fear is maybe the main character in these films, or rather the leading emotion: fear of loneliness, of dislike, of violence, of illnesses; fear of famine, of homelessness, of death.

Popogrebskii has defined the main feature of a modern director’s style as “the right to improvisation,” where not the technical aspect is important, but what comes from within. In Popogrebskii’s opinion, without the skill to improvise, it is impossible to exploit to the full what modern life has to offer. Hence the constant checking of the dialogues, the love for the living word and intonation, the aspiration to make the story inhabitable on location, thus allowing the action to acquire a range of psychologically concise and documentary details. The director reckons that everything should be thought through down to the smallest detail, and at the same time full use should be made of the camera and its lenses and colour rendition, sound and noise, to help the actor unfold what is hidden inside him. Therefore the visual and acoustic solutions are issues of style that help create meaning. Filmmakers try to depart from literary themes and look deeper into the core of impenetrable phenomena with man at the centre. The film with a reduced subject-matter unfolds slowly. Long shots and sharp changes of angles give an insight into the events: this may be the fish poisoned by radioactive waste, which had been caught by the boss of the meteorological station and which the young man puts into the furnace; or the flame of the fire that has absorbed the body of a woman loved by two men; or the infernal flame of the furnace that has gobbled up the Yakut’s daughter.

The “neo-realism” of this social-philosophical, or rather religious, cinema of the “new wave” confirms the cinematic reality as snatching the “tail of life unawares”, a life on the verge of “existence and non-existence.” Filmmakers create images of a mythical world, which conceptualize their personal experience, going back to archetypes of the collective unconscious and transmitting something pagan or something from traditional beliefs, often from the Old and New Testaments. The filmmakers believe in what they narrate. The irony has gone, and the films have become more serious.

Constructions of genre look banal when compared to an auteur view, as in the action film The Alien Girl or the quite nonsensical film almanac Moscow, I love you (Moskva ia tebia liubliu), a collective project of 18 short films by well-known directors. The five-minute-long stories, based on a single dramatic turn, should conceptually have a positive aim; yet somehow this did not work out. Instead we have a slightly dull irony. In the episode by Vera Glagoleva, “The Violinist” (“Skripach”), a killer almost accidentally rescues a gypsy girl about to be kidnapped by some malicious guys. Against the backdrop of corpses, the girl remains alive and healthy with a chocolate bar in her hands. In Nana Djordjadze’s “High-Rise” (“Vysotka”) an abandoned husband looks through a telescope into the window of the next house as a man tries to commit suicide, but he manages to rescue the poor fellow. In “Nikitsky Gates” by Iraklii Kvirikadze a jealous husband is eventually convinced of the fidelity of his wife—a rare occurrence in our times. In Andrei Razenkov’s story “He and She” (“On i ona”) the heroes are happily united with their family, even though the bride is expecting a child from another man. But the stories of different genres and spun of different yarns are a rather distant reflection of life in the megapolis. 

Auteur cinema has begun to look at the roots: the second key theme concerns man as a being who is lost in life and scared of death. The list of films under this rubric is headed by Mamuliia’s debut film and followed by the debuts of Anna Fenchenko with Missing Man (Propavshchii bez vesti) about a programmer who is thrown out onto the streets; and Reverse Motion (Obratnoe dvizhenie) by Andrei Stempkovskii—about a mother whose son who has gone to a hot spot, who nevertheless returns to his native city only to perish in a gangster fight. The fragmented editing, the frames from newsreels and pauses à la Hitchcock organize the plot about the prodigal son in modern history from the life of ordinary inhabitants of the capital and the provinces, where getting lost or disappearing is quite simply.

another skyAnother Sky is a filmic observation which has been shot in a hyper-realistic manner; it soon turns into a requiem for a lost soul. The role of shepherd Ali is played by a French actor of Arabian origin, Habib Bufares. He sustains the long, emotionally saturated close-ups, which move the spectators to empathy. Another Sky paraphrases the Chekhovian theme “To Moscow, to Moscow”: people go to the capital as if they go to Mecca, and they vanish in the “evil place,” losing themselves and their relatives. Ali’s son perishes at a sawmill exactly at the moment when the police at last finds his mother in a suburb. The film’s meaning emerges from episodes or short stories, each of which is full of drama and silent suffering. The director of Another Sky sympathizes not only with the protagonist, who binds the narrative together, but also with every minor character—whether this is a compatriot helping Ali with translation from Farsi to Russian; an avaricious employer; a faceless policeman; or a worker in the morgue in the huge Moscow hospital with its infinite corridors, creaking lifts and dim lighting. The main thing for the director is the condition of the hero, his feelings and his courage to accept both life and death. In Mamuliia’s film there is no accent on the perversity of the world; instead, there is a man occupying the niche that he was assigned. People are rounded up and brought together by the police for sanitary procedures, in public houses, at work, through poverty and illness. The megacity consumes everything and everybody. Man is like a flock of sheep readied for sacrifice: a victim brought before an unknown god. The acceptance of one’s helplessness before a depersonalizing life and inevitable death becomes a revelation for the hero and requires an effort to preserve his own humane-ness. There are only few words from the screen. More important is noise and the atmosphere: the ringing of the test tubes in the hospital where Ali searches for his wife; the squealing of a saw and the booming noise of falling pines in a suburban forest, where the son perishes; and the way in which green trunks turn into pared stumps before our eyes; a dying dog on a road accidentally knocked over by a Tajik; the alleys shot from behind along grey concrete walls; the steps of dilapidated house entrances; the screeching of tires on Moscow’s roads—all this together grows into the image of a megacity that swallows life. Man can only withstand this realization through internal resistance. Mamuliia’s film ends with a meeting of Ali and his wife, whose face—like his own—has preserved former beauty and the sense of human dignity—contrary to everything that kills. Maybe herein lies the meaning of Mamuliia’s film.

Another Sky exposes the deficiencies of genre construction in other films, such as The Golden Mean (Zolotoe sechenie) by Sergei Debizhev, who has charged an adventure plot about white émigrés, freemasons and drug dealers with nostalgia for the great cultures of the past. This sensation is strengthened through landscapes of modern Cambodia, where the ruins of the majestic temple with Buddha’s remains can be found. Even more irritating is the ambiguity of the director’s message in the detective story Who am I? (Kto ia?) by Klim Shipenko, a far-fetched plot in a holiday resort which is build around ridiculous accidents. 

golden meanAs the director of the Museum of Cinema, Naum Kleiman, noted during a personal conversation in Sochi (9 June 2010), there is no catharsis in modern cinema. Not in the Hollywood sense, as a certain “happy ending,” but in the sense of the tragedies of Sophocles and Shakespeare: whatever happens to the heroes does not lead to a collapse of the world. The artist’s ideal results from a need of his soul. Modern cinema does not offer such a solution to the dramatic collisions. There is no integrity of the world view, no ideal to aspire for. One might agree with this proposition: for the last few years there are only a handful of films about miracles of the human spirit: Pavel Lungin’s The Island (Ostrov), featuring an organic Petr Mamonov in the role of the repenting monk; The Miracle (Chudo) by Aleksandr Proshkin, where there is no hero as such, but which shows the attitude of society to an inexplicable phenomenon witnessed in the 1950s—“The Standing Zoya.” Whether then or now, people did not know how to react to a miracle. Therefore the melodramatic plot about a journalist and his ailing wife was necessary, as well as an episode to create an “attraction” when a government delegation visits the frozen girl with the icon in her hands. One man looks like the young Khrushchev, who would become famous—besides other things—for his reprisals against the church in the 1960s. Finally, there is The Priest (Pop) by Vladimir Khotinenko, where the priesthood of the main character plays an important role. The priest’s rank leads to collisions connected with the character of father Alexander (Sergei Makovetskii), who has his ministry in German-occupied territory during WWII, and places everyone onto the moral level of a man before God. The religious theme demands a high level of professionalism and tact of the filmmaker, capable of transmitting the spiritual reality on screen without didacticism and falseness.

popWhen on 14 June 2010 a group of filmmakers left the festival hotel in Sochi after Kinotavr had ended, a middle-aged man passed by with a huge black container on a trolley. Someone asked: “What are your carrying?”, and the man answered: “Bits of meat and bread which were thrown onto the rubbish by the hotel restaurants.” And he added some swear words: “I’d shoot you all. People live in poverty, and you throw whole loads of food away!” He was a live illustration to the film My Joy by Sergei Loznitsa (Prize for Best Director), but this could equally have been a scene from Svetlana Proskurina’s Truce (Grand Prix), or Anna Fenchenko’s Missing Man (Prize for Best Debut); and the scene could also fit into Reverse Motion by Andrei Stempkovskii (Special Mention of Film Critics). 

The aggression revealed in the phrase “I’d shoot you all” is another coordinate of the films of 2010/2011, designating deadlock—alongside the themes of fear corroding the soul, man’s sense of lost directions and genuine amnesia. The aggravation of destructive processes in the world leads filmmakers to an unconscious bent towards death, which is poetically declared in Fedorchenko’s Silent Souls.

If the films of Fenchenko, Loznitsa, Proskurina refer back to Vadim Abdrashitov and Aleksandr Mindadze’s myths of Parade of Planets (Parad planet, 1984), Petr Lutsik and Aleksei Samoriadov’s Outskirts (Okraina, 1999), then Fedorchenko has turned Denis Osokin’s prose into something neo-pagan. This “something” runs through the entire the film, its tempo and rhythm, the slow sound of the voice-over of the hero Aist, who leads the narration. The inartificial, almost natural play of the actors bewitches the spectator. The film skillfully speaks about extreme situations of human life, such as intimacy and death, both heightening sensuality. Therefore the absurd approach adopted by Osokin in the script comes natural, as does the genre of the “sepulchral notes” by the photographer Aist (Igor Sergeev), who perishes along with his companion Miron Alekseevich (Iurii Tsurilo) in an accident on the day of the ritual burial of Tatyana, the wife of the paper factory’s director. “This happened, or maybe not, but if it hadn’t happened I wouldn’t remember” is the humorous catchphrase from folklore in Believe it or Not (Nebyval’shchina, 1983) by Sergei Ovcharov, which may serve as a key to Silent Souls. The experience of myth as reality is inherent in pagan traditions, where myths are captured in rituals, charms and prayers, lamentations, and song culture; they are fixated through words and magic deeds. Therefore the word in Silent Souls is verified like an oxymoron, which unites things that are unrelated. The word is complemented by the image, by abrupt switches between close-ups, medium shots and panning shots. Some shots bring man closer to the viewer, while others place him in the space of roads and harsh northern landscapes with rivers, flat coastlines, the ochre of falling leaves on the roadside and freakish designs of modern bridges: the eternal meets the momentary. According to Osokin’s text, “melancholy turns into tenderness.” Thus the childless knight Miron Alekseevich mourns the sudden death of his young wife Tania. He quietly speaks about a secret: the erotic experiences with Tania, bathed in luxury yet not in love with her husband. As he washes the pliable corpse of the deceased, he prepares the dead woman like a “bride” so that later, on the embankment of the river Oka, he can make the bonfire look like a nuptial bed and catch, in the flames devouring the body, the last moment of this “tender melancholy.”

buntingsOn the last day of his life the photographer Aist remembers his father, an unlucky and self-educated poet, who once lowered the typewriter into an ice-hole as if it were a living creature. The father soon thereafter died from scorched vodka. His cantata “Smell of Summer” is performed in the club of the paper factory where Miron Alekseevich and Aist work. The cantata resembles the verses of the Oberiu poets, weaving meaning out of absurdities: which herbs and grasses should be collected to make the spirit of summer tangible in a brew.

The two little birds in the film tie together the world and myth. The buntings in the cage, bought on the market for 300 rubles, go in the car with the men. The greenish-grey little birds are the most fantastic creatures in the film. They are the strange birds of childhood. They are alive. And in the end they seal the protagonists’ fate. Aist will write the story from nonexistence on his father’s typewriter, which he will find at the bottom of the river-paradise.

The film, as the entire story about the nation of the Merya, is invented from the first to the last frame, despite the protocol of narration. The melancholy for the “warm, female” remains the only light emotion against a background of infinite melancholy and a weary life, which no longer has the completeness associated with existence. The thirst for a lost paradise becomes an unconscious drive towards death. The heady tenderness of eroticism and death as well as the energy from disintegration leads to a sepulchral space. The exhibitionism of two hopelessly lonely people, Miron and Aist, could easily turn into necrophilia if there were not the accuracy of the intonation, the simplicity of the episode with the two whores—Julia and Rimma—on the bridge, presented by the cameraman Krichman as “pictures from an exhibition” of a photo-bienniale. Fedorchenko and Osokin lead the heroes, who perish on the return journey in a car accident, to an eternal farewell. The myth is closed. The film shows the inescapable grief for a slipping, sweet life; a life without continuation; without Christ. The circle inherent in nature does not apply to human nature, to man’s resurrection. 

missing man“The depressive cinema” deepens the diagnostics of time and focuses the narration on the hero who, for the time being, remains in a stupor, a condition that borders on nonexistence. The life of the programmer from Anna Fenchenko’s debut Missing Man is quite successful, until he finds himself in the street without a roof over his head, without documents and without a job. The metamorphoses that happen to him tell about the ordeal of a hero on the verge of reality and irreality. He wanders with other homeless people along dangerous impasses around the capital. Having lost his meaning in life, man is incapable of finding it again. Fenchenko leaves the hero before he makes a decision about what to do next, at the crossroads.

A nice hunter and respectable family man from the debut To Live (Zhit’) by Iurii Bykov makes such a decision and becomes a murderer. Under the pressure of his own and surrounding aggression, the driver of Loznitsa’s My Joy snatches a rifle and shoots everyone around. The fellow-villagers from Proskurina’s Truce scald the feet of the Bashkir gastarbeiter as they try to extort where he has hidden the uncle’s money: in the hulk of a slaughtered cow. Due to the formlessness of life people flock together. The key question is: accept or reject what is alien? Then there follows bewilderment: who is alien, if everyone lives in his own system of coordinates, in a situation of total alienation from relatives and friends, from society at large. Generalizing the experience of life in the post-perestroika criminal empire, the filmmakers fixate the catastrophe as an attitude. The personal crash is perceived as total crash. The ending of Bykov’s film is symptomatic: it unfolds against the background of a destroyed church, which stands isolated in the field where somewhere in the distance some half-dilapidated huts can be seen. In one of the shanties an exhausted grandfather is finishing a bottle; he, it seems, has been held back in this world, until he is beaten up by some young brats. On his reproach: “What, sonnies, have you done, one brother to another”, the leader answers: “We are devils, not people. It’s too late to pray for us.” The protagonist (Vladislav Toldykov), a character almost straight from Turgenev’s A Hunter’s Sketches, kills the man who saved his life—by the way, one of the “devils” who commits a moral act before dying. 

truceProskurina’s film, based on the script by Dmitrii Sobolev (author of The Island) and filmed by Oleg Lukichev, captures the condition of remote places of our days: a concrete and at the same time generalized space. Here people live as best as they can. Some work, some become inveterate drunkards. Out of boredom the fellow countrymen flock together and have a good time plundering, beating each other up, and fighting to the end. Truce is also a road-movie: the journey of the trucker Egor Matveev (Ivan Dobronravov) around places he has known since his childhood, which makes them no less terrible. In the end the young man, who survives all the troubles (near-electrocution at a high-voltage line, onto which he has climbed to steal a wire of nonferrous metal; leaving a terrible beauty, the bride of the local leader by the nickname Boyar, and the modern Nightingale-robber played by Sergey Shnurov), meets a sacristan, who is his coeval. He is rushing to a wedding where he is to sing, because he has a strong voice. “Sing something!”, asks Egor. “What?”, responds the sacristan. “Well, may God Bless You!”, the driver answers, with the fellow traveler in the cabin. The sacristan suddenly begins to sing in full voice—Babadjan’s “Beauty Queen” (Koroleva krasoty), and he sings better than Muslim Magomaev or Doctor Watson. The song flows over the wide meadows, celebrating Orthodoxy, that is Life, no less than through “God Bless You” or “Halleluja”.

“You’re not afraid?”, asks Egor when he sets off the sacristan on the narrow footpath that leads across the field, where cars can go no further. “What’s there to be afraid of?”, the man in a monk’s robe asks back. And with lightness and ease he gets off the lorry, blessing Egor: “May the Lord help you.” These are the last words spoken in the film with a masterfully arranged acoustic and visual score. Further there is only noise, and Egor’s musical theme. The finale develops purposefully: the lorry drives through a forest, fantastic and illusive (shot in slow motion), surrounded by trees like in Aleksandr Rou’s children’s fairy-tale films. As the night falls, the trucker stops on the hard shoulder to spend the night. He wakes up from the disturbing rumble of a passing convoy of military vehicles and sees people running across the field. It is almost a repetition of the prologue, when Egor finds himself in a polygon during a military exercise. Then he jumped out of the car and ran in horror from the armed people, until the army men caught him and took him to headquarters. It is a sequence from an action film. In front of the bewitched Egor’s eyes, the rocket launchers creak as they are readied for launch. Maybe the truce has come to an end?

The lad remains alone in his native fields and the rising dawn. The district, the steppe ravines and the wooden beams signal a freedom that has no roads. Even the fantastic milestone with a signpost is nowhere in sight. The fairy tale is broken off. The hero, who has gone on a journey like in the old fairy tale—“I don’t know where to look for I don’t know what”—has not found the “other kingdom,” the “unseen beauty of the beloved,” or his lost brothers. The main thing are the coordinates in his living soul. The path can be continued even when the roads have ended, along some hardly visible footpath in the grass. 

sparrowDescribing a post-catastrophic world where angels of death in the shape of sentries, feral vagabonds, and schoolmate gangsters are waiting by the destroyed temple, the filmmakers do not even notice how they omit everything that does not fit into their understanding of the world, and thus overload the world with an ideology of disbelief. Like sectarian thought, their narrowed perception gives out the part for the whole, presenting a personal experience as a global one. A similar situation can be observed in the 1990s, when the ideology of Bolshevik atheism was curtailed and the screens overflowed with chernukha, which became a fertile soil for new cinema. The intonation of skepticism was inevitable. Shortly before his death, Petr Lutsik made the film Outskirts, based on a script written with Alexei Samoriadov, who had perished a few years earlier. He was the first to translate the pathos of the Soviet epos into the sarcasm of an unfolding criminal reality. The legendary Cossack men, followers of the truth, fellow villagers and well-wishers, turn not just against thieves, but against vampires. They are prepared to give their blood and dig their teeth into the chief of the district committee and cut off his head. The Moscow high-rises are occupied by fellow countrymen, who are buying up the land from their own people and work on the predatory development of oil fields: the black blood of the fields, samples of which stand on the shelves. Therefore in the end the high-rise of Lutsik’s Outskirts is blown up in an ominous firework. The Cossacks, having returned home as if nothing had happened, plough over the tall weeds in the field.

The theme of a revolt in a village on the outskirts of Russia unexpectedly emerges in the film by the patriarch of documentary cinema, Iurii Shiller, who made a fiction film based on his own script, The Sparrow (Vorobei), written in the best traditions of Russian village prose. It is a unique film for the 2010/11 season, where the author’s position, despite all the grief, is not pessimistic. Shiller’s film represented Russia in the competition of the International Moscow Film Festival 2010.

The first half of The Sparrow is plot-less and represents a long exposition. As a matter of fact, this is typical for the documentalist Shiller and his world of Russia’s backwaters where, despite ruin all around, he finds people resembling the strange figures of the prose of a Platonov or a Shukshin, perched on the roadside of life, in the most improbable and unsuitable places: dugouts in the forest, lop-sided log huts on the side of the forest, or a quiet river where the storks lodge. Similar characters can be found in the films of Bykov, Fenchenko, and Proskurina. They are outsiders and marginal characters. For Shiller all the characters have something to do and a purpose in life: they plough; they build; they look after cattle; they make notes about their village for their descendants. Such corners, where not even a hunter has ever set his foot, will soon disappear from the map of a once huge agricultural power. But for now that life still exists, as Shiller confirms. Not two quirky buntings for 300 rubles from the local market in the back of the car, but kites in the sky, herons in hiding, pikes in unruffled waters, hedgehogs after mushrooms, red-footed geese en route to the river, cheeky sparrows chirping in the garden, cocks running for red berries, yellow-beaked ducks at the trough, lazy cats by the window, lop-eared dogs in the back yard, sheep and goats and cows and a horse—and this is no complete list of what is captured in Shiller’s film. There is a lot of sky, and it always looks different: clear, sunny, and before a storm; azure blue, at sunset and before dawn, covered by feathery and cumulous clouds. The pride of this marvelous place, as the local chronicler granddad Kuzmich writes in his book, is a herd of race horses, which in some mysterious way appeared in the village as if sent by heaven. Granddad Kuzmich, the father of Stepan and grandfather of the protagonist Mitka, a blonde boy by the nickname “Sparrow,” reckons that the herd was led there by the strongest horse in the village, Grom (Thunder). The herd grazed already under Kuzmich’s grandfather. The horses race across the steppe, shaking their manes, hardly touching the soil with their hoofs, as if flying above the ground and stirring up a cloud of dust. People have got used to them and hardly notice them, in the same way as they hardly notice the God-given beauty of their land. But just try to take anything away, and everything looks poor.

Danger looms above the herd: the horses, seemingly unnecessary, are to be sold by the new chairman of the dying state farm. He wants to send them to the abattoir to cover the interest on the loan. This is the plot, and the solution is close: to protect the herd, equipped with a charged rifle, stands Sparrow, a small “sniper from the Voroshilov regiment”. The civil war continues…

The second half of the film is dynamical and the action develops fast. Having taken the father’s gun, Mitka gets up early in the morning to block the way of the two lorries with the horses. Feeling the call of his ancestors, the boy achieves what the adults have not managed: he will not budge. The chairman calls off the sale.

“And you would shoot at me?”, asks the former military man, the father of the boy’s schoolmate, a girl he is enamored with. “I’d shoot,” answers the adolescent, shivering from the insult. Herein lies the essence: it would have been a matter of minutes to knock out the ten-year-old. The adults are arrested and stopped by his conviction and determination, his position and his passion, his deed. Not by rage, idleness or revenge, but by the truth, for the sake of Life. For the sake of the grandfather’s memory, who has almost died from a heart attack when he learnt of the herd’s fate; for the father’s sake who, like the grandfather and great-grandfather, herded horses since his youth. Three generations of peasants stand up for their tradition: the boy, the father and the grandfather, and they are backed by human relations, by family, by history. Therefore, the peasants and villagers join them. 

Shiller is not afraid to be old-fashioned, detailed, and realistic. One could say that today, tradition has become avant-garde. Artistically not losing touch with reality, Shiller shows life in the backwaters with the striking charm of its daily life. Shiller has chosen such a place, such an angle, such a view. Hardly idealizing, he shows people living in patriarchal structures. They rise at dawn, they put things in order in the house, they feed the cattle, they make a soup, they sit down together at the table. They have conversations about life. They drink moderately, they love and argue, they raise children; they treat patients, help each other out. Here people have known each other since childhood. They are no strangers. When the time comes, they will say farewell. The bell on the bell-tower will ring out. Ingenuously, without wielding the material, Shiller captured the slipping world of the Russian village, which has actually not at all disappeared, but is alive and next to us. It should be felt with one’s heart. The film quietly, without pathos, stresses the saying that man should not be hindered to live on his native soil.

Without Shiller’s film, the image of the world in auteur cinema of 2010/11 would be incomplete. In The Sparrow the filmmaker has suggested a way out: there is that catharsis for which Naum Kleiman longed. This world convinces with its human dignity, integrity and beauty. 

Translated by Birgit Beumers

Tat’iana Moskvina-Iatsenko

Tat’iana Moskvina-Iatsenko© 2012

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Updated: 14 Oct 12