Issue 59 (2018)

Yusup Razykov: Sella Turcica (Turetskoe sedlo, 2017) 

reviewed by Seth Graham© 2018

The sella turcica (Latin for “Turkish seat”) is a saddle-shaped depression in the human skull, in which lies the pituitary gland. It gives its name to the medical condition known as Empty Sella Syndrome (ESS), which is caused by a shrunken pituitary and manifests itself in headaches, chills, sweats, and loss of memory, concentration, and coordination.

sella turcicaAll of these symptoms seem to be both the end result of, and a threat to, the life-long vocation of Iusup Razykov’s protagonist in Sella Turcica, identified simply as Il’ich. He is a retired KGB/FSB domestic surveillance agent (a mole or, in Russian slang, toptun) who now leads an ascetic, solitary life, in which his only apparent distractions are occasional meals and conversation with his former colleagues (they meet once to honor the memory of a colleague who has recently died after being diagnosed with ESS). His main pastime, however, is choosing more or less random people to follow and monitor “for fun,” as he once did as an invisible and omnipotent servant of the state.

Much of the film’s attention is given to the small rituals of Il’ich’s daily life: shaving, brushing his teeth, ironing the shirt he wears to his stultifying job as a security guard, preparing and eating the hard-boiled eggs that seem to be his only sustenance. This is a man trained not to have a personal life, and to focus all of his energy and attention, surreptitiously, on others. The camera lingers especially often on the large jar in which Il’ich discards the empty eggshells, an image open to metaphorical interpretation regarding his former (and present) relationship to the other, civilian, members of society. Il’ich regards them with a combination of pity, contempt and professional fascination. “They’re like children,” he tells his former colleague and protégé, Kuznetsov, “you can’t take your eyes off them for a second.”

Il’ich does not seem to take much pleasure from his hobby of tailing people on foot around the non-descript Russian town; it is the reflex behavior of an obsolete tool of an obsolete system. Elena Stishova aptly compares Il’ich to the former Gulag guard dog Ruslan in Georgii Vladimov’s novella Faithful Ruslan (Stishova 2017). He does not know how to be anything else but a toptun, and it is only a matter of time before his hard-wired past as a predator comes into conflict with the realities of the new, more “vegetarian” times, just as Ruslan, after the post-Stalin Gulag amnesties deprive him of his purpose, viciously and reflexively attacks the first group of “civilians” he sees.

sella turcicaThe camera follows Il’ich’s quarry along with him, and often continues following them after he has lost the trail, or lost interest. The scenes to which he himself is not privy—or, perhaps, as Vida Johnson (2017) argues, scenes which depict Il’ich’s own fantasies about what the people do when they are beyond his gaze—are shot in black and white. These tangents from the central narrative are themselves miniature dramas: a naïve actor about to appear in his first porno film awkwardly tries to establish a connection with the experienced, jaded actress with whom he is about to perform; a naval officer confronts his doctor about an unwelcome diagnosis. In a scene that foreshadows the changes about to affect Il’ich’s monotonous life, one of the random people he is tailing “makes” him, threatens to call the police, and scolds him that “the times are different now,” a stinging reminder (along with his carelessness in being exposed) of his own obsolescence.

Despite this worrying setback, Il’ich seems content to continue to follow and observe people passively, until the arrival of new upstairs neighbors, a young couple who work in an opera company. He begins to hear beautiful singing from their apartment and starts to pursue, in his own way, a relationship of some sort with the woman, even stealing her bike so she is forced to walk, and is thus easier to follow. As Il’ich falls ever more deeply under the trance of the music “from above,” and from the new emotions he feels, Valerii Maslov’s acting skills come to the fore: his face, previously the impeccable mask of the grey, treacherous KGB agent, begins to soften and brighten. He even socializes with the woman and her boyfriend, and does the unthinkable for a man of his profession: answers their questions about his personal life honestly (he had a wife, but she left him due to his lack of attention to her). As the narrative moves quickly towards its dramatic, violent climax in the third act, Il’ich transforms once again, into the vicious agent of power that always lay under the surface. Razykov wrote the part of Il’ich specifically for Maslov, a stage actor and drama teacher from Yaroslavl.

Both the black-and-white and color sequences, as in some of Razykov’s previous films, are painterly and contemplative, with long takes, medium shots,and a mostly static camera. The technical virtuosity on display here by the veteran Razykov, who has now made lasting and masterful contributions to both Uzbek and Russian cinema, meshes well with the themes of the film: meticulous and even mechanical observation of people’s lives that is transformed, through the power of art, into aesthetic, even sublime, fascination.

sella turcicaThe topic of the “afterlives” of obsolete state security agents is something of a micro-genre in films of the post-Cold-War quarter century. Perhaps the best-known (and best) example is Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s The Lives of Others (Das Leben der Anderen, 2006), about a Stasi agent who reevaluates his life in the years before the fall of the Berlin Wall, but the theme has been treated from the “other side,” as well. In Antoine Fuqua’s film The Equalizer (2014), for instance, Denzel Washington plays a retired US spy, whose ordered, minimalistic life is interrupted by unexpected dramatic events. Unlike either of those other examples, however, Razykov’s treatment of Il’ich’s character and behavior is not primarily intended as an implicit commentary on the history and nature of the Communist surveillance state, or as the context for a genre narrative in which the protagonist’s dormant and lethal skills can be displayed. While those elements are present in Razykov’s subtly complex narrative, the film is ultimately a character study. The titular metaphor of a malfunctioning pituitary gland—the part of the brain responsible for growth and development—effectively and eloquently describes Il’ich’s past, present and future.

Seth Graham
University College London

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Works Cited

Johnson, Vida. 2017. “Kinotavr 28: Genre, Variety, Relevance.” KinoKultura 57

Stishova, Elena. 2017. “Diagnoz. ‘Turetskoe sedlo’. Iusup Razykov.” Iskusstvo kino 5/6.

Sella Turcica, Russia, 2017
Color, 76 min.
Director & Scriptwriter: Iusup Razykov
Cinematography: Iurii Mikhailishin, Iurii Krochuk
Music: Aleksei Artishevskii
Cast: Valerii Maslov, Veronika Kuznetsova, Il’ia Kovrizhnykh, Sergei Genkin, Anna Belenkaia
Producers: Iusup Razykov, Denis Luzanov, Daria Lavrova, Filipp Brusnikin, Aleksander Gadalov
Production: Tritona

Yusup Razykov: Sella Turcica (Turetskoe sedlo, 2017) 

reviewed by Seth Graham© 2018

Updated: 2018