Issue 65 (2019)

Natal’ia Meshchaninova: Core of the World (Serdtse mira, 2018)

reviewed by Robyn Jensen © 2019

Off the side of a moving boat, a hand cuts through water, creating small waves in its wake. It is a gentle caress that nonetheless disturbs the water’s smooth surface. This opening shot of man in contact with nature establishes the dynamic between tranquility and violence that Core of the World explores to great effect.

serdtse miraWinner of the Grand Prix at the Kinotavr Film Festival in 2018, Natal’ia Meshchaninova’s Core of the World is set at a training facility for hunting dogs in an unspecified rural village. The film focuses on the veterinarian Egor (Stepan Devonin, awarded Best Actor at Kinotavr 2018), who lives in a small hut on the compound, just a few paces away from the house of the owner Nikolai and his family. He has retreated from society, finding it easier to interact with animals than humans. Early in the film we see Egor in roles of care—feeding milk to baby goats from a bottle, treating a dog’s wounds and helping her learn to walk again—but it soon becomes clear that Egor himself is like one of these wounded animals in need of care. Thus we often see Nikolai’s daughter Dasha draw him out of his solitary hut, coaxing him to spend time with the family, feeding him even when he insists he isn’t hungry. But, also like the animals he spends his days with, Egor’s gentle nature can suddenly erupt into fits of uncontrollable rage and aggression. Egor’s past catches up with him when he gets a call from his aunt telling him his mother has died. We learn that he is estranged from his mother, an alcoholic, and that they had a difficult and violent relationship. He refuses to go to the funeral, but the specter of this fraught relationship hovers over the rest of the film, as Egor searches for acceptance and forgiveness. 

serdtse miraWhile the film largely portrays the rural facility as a self-enclosed space separate from the rest of the society, pressures from the outside world intrude in the form of several young animal rights activists. The “greens”, as Nikolai dismissively calls them, periodically come to the facility in an attempt to document and protest the animal abuse they believe is taking place there. Meshchaninova noted in an interview that filming finished before Russia banned the controversial practice of “contact baiting” (kontaktnaia pritravka) in the training of hunting dogs (Hopewell 2018). Animal rights activists argue that the training practice, in which hunting dogs chase down chained wild animals such as foxes and bears, causes the baited animals physical and mental suffering. Those in support of the practice insist that it is the only way to effectively breed and train hunting dogs, and that when done properly it does not cause undue suffering. In December 2017, the State Duma passed a bill to reform hunting laws in an effort to ban the practice of contact baiting, but it was voted down by the Federation Council (Berg 2018). In February 2018, a revised version of the law was passed that stipulated a barrier must be present between the training dog and the chained animal, if the animal’s chain significantly restrains its ability to move and defend itself (Anon. 2018).

serdtse miraEarly in the film we witness the practice of contact baiting when a competition takes place on the compound. During the competition, each hunting dog fights a fox and is assessed on its speed, aggression, and attack. And while the scene is graphic—we see a dog and a fox locking jaws; another dog emerges from the fight with a bloody snout—Meshchaninova is at pains to give a nuanced portrait of the facility. Although the function of such a place is to train dogs to hunt foxes and other wild animals, this violence is offset by the workers' genuine care and concern for the animals’ well-being. Indeed, we mainly see the workers engaged in the daily acts of caring for the animals: walking the dogs, feeding them, cleaning their cages. The film explores the contradictions of such an environment, and in the process reveals how human interactions follow a similar play of aggression with brief moments of tenderness. Love, in this film, is always precariously balanced between care and cruelty. We see this in Nikolai’s tender affection for the foxes he raises as bait for training hunting dogs, but also in allusions to Egor’s violent relationship with his mother, and even when the gentle Dasha, in a moment of frustration, pushes her young son into the mud, humiliating him in front of his friends.

serdtse miraWhile Egor initially treats the activists kindly, even offering them advice on where they can bathe when he runs into them at a shop in the village, tensions come to a head when the activists break into the facility under cover of night to release the caged foxes. While some of the foxes eventually return to the center (they have come back “home”), several others are found dead in the woods, unable to survive in the wild. The activists are thus portrayed as idealistic but naïve and ignorant. They want to save the animals, but by setting them free they unwittingly condemn them to death. Those who work at the training facility, the film seems to suggest, are the ones who truly care about the animals.

Although on the surface it would seem that the activists are the ones threatening life on the compound, it is actually the ghosts from Egor’s past that begin to unravel the delicate equilibrium that he has found living with this family and among the animals. After he receives the call that his mother has died, Egor tells no one and walks around as if in a stupor all day. But at night we see him alone pacing the floor of his house, crying and hitting himself on the head. Egor’s dedication to helping the wounded dog Belka recover her ability to walk begins to seem like a mechanism for working through his complicated relationship with his mother. Throughout the film, Egor is often seen carrying Belka around his neck; she seems to figure as his own psychic wounds externalized while suggesting the possibility of recovery and rehabilitation.

serdtse miraSoon Egor’s aunt arrives without warning. She brings photographs of his mother and tries to bring up happy memories of their relationship, but Egor remains wary of her presence. She then reveals that she is hoping he will sign over his mother’s apartment to her. He tells her to get lost, and begins to throw things at the wall when she leaves. Egor’s anger is unleashed, but it would seem that he is unsure how to manage his feelings of anger, guilt, and grief. He eventually redirects his anger onto the young activists. One night, after an aborted sexual encounter with Dasha, Egor tracks down the activists camping in the woods. He traps them within their tents while they are sleeping and then proceeds to beat them with an iron rod. A writhing mass within the tents, they scream out for mercy. It is a shocking scene, this display of violence completely unprovoked. The gentle Egor has suddenly become like the hunting dog, cornering his prey in its hole and attacking.

serdtse miraLater that night, Nikolai comes by Egor’s hut. Nikolai has been on a bender and is looking for more alcohol. He starts tearing through Egor’s things, claiming that they all belong to him. Egor snaps: he pushes him to the ground and begins to mercilessly beat him. Egor’s almost childlike sounds of panting from the effort of beating him give the sense that we are replaying an older scene between him and his mother. Leaving Nikolai on the floor, Egor goes to spend the rest of the night in the woods with Belka. He briefly returns to the compound, but sees a police car and thinks they are after him for what he has done (when, in fact, we later learn that the family was concerned that he had gone missing and alerted the police). He returns back to the woods with Belka, but realizing that he has nowhere to go, he comes back to the compound once again. A light snow is falling, illuminated in the darkness by a streetlamp. He decides to make his bed for the night inside the dogs’ cage; he locks himself in the cage, as if making his own prison cell, and then curls up in the corner embraced and protected by the dogs. When Nikolai comes in the morning to feed the dogs and finds Egor inside, Egor refuses to unlock the cage and come out. This has been, perhaps, the longest night of his life and he has done terrible things. But Nikolai offers him forgiveness, and even asks Egor to forgive him. Egor finally emerges from his cage, both literally and figuratively, stepping out into the morning light that is heavy with fog. While some viewers might not be ready to forgive Egor’s brutal act of violence against the young activists, the film asks for a kind of radical forgiveness for him.

Meshchaninova’s background as a documentary filmmaker comes through in her approach to this material, but it is inflected with a poetic or metaphorical sensibility. Meshchaninova said that she wanted the film to have a “tactile” quality, and indeed part of the film’s power comes from the sense of being immersed in the physical world the characters inhabit (Stepanov 2018). The film is largely a study of the unremarkable everyday routines of its characters and of things left unsaid. Ultimately, it is the characters’ capacity for cruelty and for love that makes them subjects worthy of Meshchaninova’s compassionate lens.

Robyn Jensen
Pomona College

Comment on this article on Facebook

Works Cited

Anon. 2018. “Gosduma priniala novuiu redaktsiiu zakonoproekta ob okhotnichykh sobakakh. Ranee Sovet Federatsii otkazaklsia ego utverdit’.” Meduza 14 February.

Berg, Evgenii. 2018. “Vospitanie glavnogo okhotnich’ego kachestva—zloby: Pochemu Gosduma khochet zapretit’ pritravku sobakami dikikh zverei, a Sovet Federatsii—protiv.” Meduza 12 January.

Hopewell, John. 2018. “San Sebastian: Natalia Meschaninova on ‘Core of the World,’ Inhibited Masculinity.” Variety 23 September.

Stepanov, Vasilii. 2018. “Taktil’nyi kadr. Na s”emkakh ‘Serdtsa mira’.” Seans Blog 28 April.

 

 


Core of the World, Russia, 2018
Color, 124 mins
Director: Natal’ia Meshchaninova
Scriptwriters: Natalia Meshchaninova, with the participation of Boris Khlebnikov and Stepan Devonin
Cinematography: Evgenii Tsvetkov
Production Design: Kirill Shuvalov
Editing: Dar’ia Danilova
Cast: Stepan Devonin, Dmitrii Podnozov, Jana Sekste, Evgenii Sytyi, Ekaterina Vasil’eva
Producers: Sergei Selianov, Natalia Drozd’
Production: CTB, with support from the Ministry of Culture of the Russian Federation
Distribution (RF): Nashe Kino

Natal’ia Meshchaninova: Core of the World (Serdtse mira, 2018)

reviewed by Robyn Jensen © 2019

Updated: 2019