Issue 48 (2015)

Andrei Konchalovskii: The Postman’s White Nights (Belye nochi pochtal’ona Alekseia Triapitsyna, 2014)

reviewed by Ellina Sattarova © 2015

triapitsynAndrei Konchalovskii’s drama The Postman’s White Nights, winner of the Silver Lion at the Venice Film Festival, continues the director’s interest in life in the Russian village as shown, amongst others, in The Story of Asya Klyiachina (Istoriia Asi Kliachinoi, 1967, rel. 1988), deemed anti-Soviet and shelved by the authorities for twenty years, or its sequel Asya and the Hen with the Golden Eggs (Kurochka Riaba, 1994), considered to be anti-Russian by a number of domestic audiences and critics. The Postman’s White Nights will likely “beat” its predecessors and strike out both with the censors and the Russian audiences. Saturated with profanity, the film will encounter difficulties on Russian screens (unless Dmitrii Medvedev’s proposal to reverse the controversial anti-profanity law is approved). Konchalovskii, however, claims he does not want the film to be released theatrically and that it will be of little interest to Russian audiences who see this life on a daily basis (Anon. 2014a).

triapitsynThat Konchalovskii targets primarily non-Russian audiences is made clear from the very beginning. The film has a distinct “postcard” quality to it that cannot be substantially justified by the occupation of the film’s protagonist or the fact that it was filmed in the Kenozero national park area. The image that serves as the background for opening credits (and later proves to be a print on a plastic tablecloth) looks like a tasteless postcard—every name and job title is accompanied by six digits stylized as postal codes used on Russian (and Soviet) envelopes. Throughout the film the camera remains predominantly static; the characters often move in and out of the shot while the camera lingers on the beautiful landscape (every still a postcard in itself) or the character’s dwellings. While the focus on the scenery is unsurprising, long takes of dark, cluttered rooms can only be explained by their status as curiosities. Moreover, the characters themselves appear to be merely “curiosities” in the film, a peculiar species with a peculiar lifestyle and a peculiar habitat. Konchalovskii’s misfortunate comparison of the non-professional actors engaged in the film to “lions or aboriginal Australians” (Anon. 2014a) did not help his case.

triapitsynThe Postman’s White Nights, set and shot in a number of villages in the Arkhangelsk region near the Kenozero lake, features the area’s locals as its non-professional actors. To tell their stories, the film follows the life of Aleksei Triapitsyn, a postman who functions as the connecting link between the characters and the outside world. His duties go far beyond what the job definition usually entails. He delivers letters and pensions but, more importantly, he delivers bread, light bulbs, pain killers and other essentials from the grocery store that is located on the other side of the lake. For many, however, it is not what he delivers that matters—lonely and bored, the recipients invite him to stay for a cup of tea, a cigarette or a glass of vodka (although Triapitsyn quit drinking two years ago).

triapitsynThe picture Konchalovskii paints is a truly grim one: poverty, alcoholism, dysfunctional families—to quote one of the film’s characters, toska, a distinctly Russian sort of depression. The characters live in a world of their own that is distanced from the rest of the world not only in space but also in time. Ticking clocks and calendars appear in several households but they are no more than a part of the décor. The calendar in Vit'ka the Bun’s living room, for instance, is for 2009 and is at least three years behind the actual date, taking into account that the Konchalovskii crew started shooting in 2012. Non-linearity of the temporal dimension is reiterated in the way the narrative is organized in the film. A constant point of return is an overhead shot of Triapitsyn’s flip-flops and callused feet on the rug beside his bed. Each new day starts in the exact same way: the postman puts on the flip-flops, goes to get water to put on the kettle and has breakfast while Channel One Russia’s makeover show Fashion Verdict (Modnyi prigovor) is playing in the background.

TV sets appear to be an essential part of every household. Like the clocks and the calendars, however, they do not help the residents to keep up with the times. TVs are piled here one on top of another, like in the early post-Soviet times when an older TV came to serve as a stand for the newer, better one. They have lost their function as a means of communication and have been transformed into furniture. Since makeover shows are of no use for Triapitsyn and his neighbors, TVs, more often than not, merely produce background noise, while nobody is watching or listening. Thus, paradoxically, they are remnants of the past rather than a link to the contemporary world. In one of those rare instances when the TV is actually being watched (Vit’ka the Bun is watching another Channel One Russia show, Wait for Me [Zhdi menia]), it is a connection to the past—to his orphaned childhood—that draws him in.

triapitsynIn Konchalovskii’s “ethnographic” account, the past is ever-present. During the opening credits, for instance, Triapitsyn shows and comments on a few photographs that capture moments from his past: his brief marriage, his days of bitter “struggles” with vodka. There is no room for his present self in this opening: only his arms and hands holding the pictures are shown while the voice-off is explicating the connection to the past. Memories overwhelm Triapitsyn several times throughout the film. What is of interest, however, is that these memories appear predominantly within the fictionalized realm of Konchalovskii’s docu-fiction.

Despite its claim that all of the characters are real people, the film engages two professional actors: Irina Ermolova who plays the postman’s former classmate and Timur Bondarenko who plays her son. These two characters become the narrative magnet of the film—Triapitsyn makes clumsy attempts to “woo” Irina and eagerly takes on a fatherly role towards Timur. It is mainly in the interactions with these fictional characters that Triapitsyn feels the inclination to reminisce. Irina reminds him of their school years, and the postman takes Timur to the building where the school used to be and now lies in ruins. The Soviet anthem and a mixture of pioneer songs keep playing in the postman’s head.

triapitsynThe fictional element is thus introduced to satisfy narrative desire on several levels. It adds a dramatic element to Triapitsyn’s cycle of flip-flops–breakfast–work. When Irina and Timur leave the village, Triapitsyn decides to relocate to the city (although he quickly changes his mind), symbolically leaving his flip-flops behind. Triapitsyn’s fictional pursuit of an unlikely relationship also imposes on him a normative desire for marriage and fatherhood. Finally, the memories of childhood, invoked by his interactions with Irina and Timur, aspire to add another layer of meaning to Konchalovskii’s account. These memories are essential for bringing to life the somewhat heavy-handed metaphor of the school building as the village stuck in the post-Soviet ruins. The school closed but the old building has not been demolished and a new one has not (yet) been built.

In the same pursuit for depth of meaning, Konchalovskii includes the scene of a rocket launch towards the end of the film. Triapitsyn and his neighbor Iura are shown sitting by the lake against yet another sublime landscape. The latter is wondering why people remain so distressed these days. Konchalovskii’s answer appears behind their backs where a rocket is launched into the skies. The camera lingers for a few more seconds on the interlocutors, cuts to the rocket and then goes inside one of the poorly furnished, crumbling households, suggesting in a rather throwaway manner that there are better ways to spend money than to blow it up in the air. To top it off, Triapitsyn is joined in this scene by the imaginary grey cat that has been haunting him throughout the film. Commenting on his film, Konchalovskii said: “There is not much of a story here, but there is no such thing as boring stories, there are only poor storytellers” (2014b). His numerous fictional embellishments, however, make one wonder if the original, unembellished story could have been a better one to tell.

Ellina Sattarova
University of Pittsburgh

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Works Cited

Anon. (2014a), “Konchalovskii poschital beschelovechnym privozit' akterov iz svoego fil'ma na Venetsianskii kinofestival',” Interfaks 5 Sepember.

Anon. (2014b), “Konchalovskii ne bez volneniia uznal ob uchastii v Venetsianskom MKF,” RIANovosti 26 July.

The Postman’s White Nights, Russia, 2014
Color, 101 minutes
Director: Andrei Konchalovskii
Script: Andrei Konchalovskii, Elena Kiseleva
Cinematography: Aleksandr Simonov
Music: Eduard Artem'ev
Production designer: Liubov' Skorina
Editing: Sergei Taraskin
Cast: Aleksei Triapitsyn, Irina Ermolova, Timur Bondarenko
Producer: Andrei Konchalovskii
Production: Andrei Konchalovsky Studios

Andrei Konchalovskii: The Postman’s White Nights (Belye nochi pochtal’ona Alekseia Triapitsyna, 2014)

reviewed by Ellina Sattarova © 2015

Updated: 20 Mar 15