Issue 38 (2012)

Aleksandr Kasatkin, Natal’ia Nazarova: Daughter (Doch’, 2012)

reviewed by Olga Mesropova © 2012

dochWinner of the Best Debut award at the 2012 Open Russian Film Festival Kinotavr, Daughter is the first feature film by the directorial duo Aleksandr Kasatkin and Natal’ia Nazarova (whose cinematic partnership began in 2007 with Kasatkin’s Listening to Silence based on Nazarova’s script). Unlike their previous film, which told the story of a provincial girl’s journey to Moscow, Daughter is set entirely within the confines of the Russian glubinka: most of the filming took place in Elat’ma and Kasimovo, two small villages in the Riazan’ region.  Frequently shot in the dark, Elat’ma’s bleak and barren visual imagery, replete with dilapidated buildings and desolate back roads, is a melancholic cinematic space torn between modern transformations and lingering traditions. Populated by a surprisingly large number of teenagers and a few dysfunctional adults, the village serves as an ideal setting for a compelling (albeit somewhat hackneyed) mélange of religious parable and police procedural.

dochCentral to the film’s narrative is the naïve teenager, Inna, played by Maria Smol’nikova who, after the death of her mother, lives with her little brother Vovka and her father (Oleg Tkachev). Reminiscent of the cruel father in Andrei Zviagintsev’s The Return (Vozvrashchenie), Inna’s father is violently repressive and does not hesitate to beat the girl when he perceives any signs of disobedience (for example, the discovery of a pornographic magazine stashed under his daughter’s pillow).  Despite the father’s solemn coldness with the children and his frequent absences (by day he works at the village bakery; by night he repairs refrigerators), Inna seems to be filled with unconditional and, one suspects, unfounded love and admiration for her father. This daughterly affection is masterfully portrayed in a number of mise-en-scènes, such as one of the opening frames where Inna lovingly clings to her father while riding on the back of his bicycle. In this same vein, her home, with its old-fashioned décor, where the silence is punctuated by monosyllabic dialogue and the constant ticking of an antique clock that the father winds daily, is clearly a place which Inna holds dear as a symbol of traditions and values she evidently cherishes.

dochA major change in Inna’s life and value system is sparked by the arrival of two newcomers to the village. First is the modernizing (and corrupting) influence of Masha (Iana Osipova), who comes from a larger town and soon befriends Inna. Clad in skin-tight jeans, the promiscuous Masha does all the “wrong things.” She flirts with local boys, smokes, drinks beer, introduces Inna to the above-mentioned pornographic magazine, and even takes her to a discotheque. While Masha is a clear embodiment of “sinful” incursions into Inna’s previously innocent life, the town’s other newcomers, the family of an Orthodox priest, represent traditional Christian virtues and values. Forming an obvious antithesis to Masha’s corrupting influence, when Inna and the priest’s son Il’ia (Igor’ Mazepa) fall in love, Il’ia brings Inna to church where she shares a communal meal with his family and, apparently for the first time, hears an Orthodox prayer. 

dochThe slightly banal parable of a provincial teenager torn between “good” (traditional Orthodox Christianity) and “evil” (modern urban life) is closely intertwined with the film’s detective plot, which revolves around the serial murders of seven teenage girls in the village.  Included among the murder victims is the daughter of the newly arrived priest. As the film progresses, Inna’s new friend Masha also dies at the hands of the serial killer. While the police unsuccessfully attempt to identify the assassin, Inna’s father confesses to the priest that he is the killer and his actions were inspired by “God’s will” to rid the village of sin, dirt, and “debauchery.” (The murder victims all dressed “immodestly,” were out too late, etc.) The priest now faces the moral dilemma of whether to report the murderer with a messianic complex or to keep sacrosanct the secret of his ecclesiastical confession. The moral dilemma is compounded by the fact that the priest’s own daughter is one of the killer’s victims. While the priest ultimately remains true to his religious obligations and decides not to inform the police of the murderer’s identity, the priest’s wife, who happens to overhear the confession and is free from priestly vows, goes to the police herself. Inna’s father is subsequently arrested, admits his guilt, and also confesses that several years ago he killed his own wife (Inna’s mother) for her supposedly “immoral” behavior.

dochAlthough her father is finally proven to be the serial killer, Inna refuses to believe that he is a monstrous criminal. As the film’s narrative parallels Inna’s point-of-view, the father’s acts of murder remain elliptical and the viewer never actually sees his crimes on-screen, unlike the blood-splattered beating of Inna’s father by a police investigator whose sister happens to be one of the murder victims. Inna goes beyond her denial that her father has done anything wrong. Indeed she seemingly elevates him to something akin to sainthood by treating his photograph as if it were an icon, placing it in the center of the village’s empty Board of Fame (the abandoned Soviet-era doska pocheta).  After the killer’s identity has been revealed, the viewer is treated to scenes reminiscent of Rolan Bykov’s 1983 film Chuchelo (Scarecrow), as the vindictive villagers begin to persecute Inna and her little brother.  The teenage girl becomes a scapegoat for her father’s crime and she is assaulted by her classmates, as well as by one of the victims’ mothers. She also experiences the collapse of her family unit when, in addition to her father’s imprisonment, her little brother is sent off to an orphanage.  As her own image becomes entwined with the motif of martyrdom, Inna attempts to commit suicide, but only after she says the prayer the priest’s son Il’ia has taught her.

dochThe film ends on a relatively optimistic note: Inna survives her suicide attempt. She is, moreover, able to reunite with her little brother, and returns to the home village that, in another elliptical storyline, she supposedly had left. Although the whereabouts of Inna’s father remain unknown to the viewer, Inna appears to have been embraced by a new surrogate family, headed by a new adoptive mother, an immigrant co-worker whom Inna’s father married before he confessed his crimes. The viewer is left to question the father’s motives for marrying this out-of-towner.  Initially one is left to believe he was willing to help a perfect stranger obtain housing registration and retain employment in the village. Now there is the suspicion he knew all along that his two children would soon need someone to look after them.

In an interview regarding the film, the directors stated that with Daughter they were attempting to portray a society that has undergone many traumatic transformations during the past 100 years. One transformation that they cited in particular was the rejection of religious faith during and after the Bolshevik revolution, which, they believe, led to the slow but sure collapse of moral codes in Russian society (Kataeva).  Setting aside the directors’ questionable message that the answer to Russia’s moral dilemmas is a return to the Orthodox faith, the film is beautifully shot, superbly cast, and appears to be more nuanced and masterfully narrated than the creators of Daughter themselves seem to realize. 

Olga Mesropova
Iowa State University

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Works Cited

Kataeva, Nina, “O dushe—po dusham. ‘Ubezhdeny—iskusstvo meniaet cheloveka,’” File RF,2 August 2012.

Daughter, Russia, 2012
Color, 110 mins.
Directors: Aleksandr Kasatkin, Natal’ia Nazarova
Screenplay: Natal’ia Nazarova
Cinematography: Andrei Naidenov
Sound: Filipp Lamshin
Music: Aleksandr Manotskov
Cast: Maria Smol’nikova, Iana Osipova, Igor’ Mazepa, Oleg Tkachev, Vladimir Mishukov, Kirill Nazarov, Anastasiia Imamova, Maria Zvonareva
Producer: Sergei Zernov, Svetlana Kuchmaeva
Production: Gorky Film Studio, Valdai Film Studio

Aleksandr Kasatkin, Natal’ia Nazarova: Daughter (Doch’, 2012)

reviewed by Olga Mesropova © 2012

Updated: 11 Oct 12