Issue 67 (2020)

Konstantin Khudiakov: The Moth (Motylek, 2017)

reviewed by Brian Kilgour © 2020

motylekEarly in Konstantin Khudiakov’s The Moth, a character walks into a room filled with tanks of water that contain men frantically searching through keys for the one that will allow them to emerge. Sharply dressed men look on this chilling spectacle approvingly—as the leader of the ceremony speaks, it becomes apparent that the onlookers are gambling on which men will survive. In a prior scene, the owner of this club can be seen walking a black hound as masked revelers enter a fog-enshrouded mansion. This magical realist representation of vice occurs in the first ten minutes of the film, but is representative of the artistic vision of the film as a whole. As the film progresses, viewers encounter a brothel modeled on a saloon, a highway covered with sleeping butterflies, and a mysterious child who tends to recite Silver Age poetry. While The Moth struggles at times to come up with ways to keep its plot moving, it represents a fascinating approach to the themes of vice and redemption by blending elements of magical realism and Silver Age poetry into a visually compelling, symbolically dense film.

The Moth follows three characters that represent various vices: Lera is the proprietor of a brothel, Serzh, her husband, is a consul who spends a significant amount of time gambling, and Petrovich, introduced separately, is a drug trafficker. Each character is also fated to die: Lera is suffering from a terminal illness, Serzh places his life on a bet and loses, and Petrovich is on the run after stealing a truckload of the drugs he transports. Yet, although the film features multiple facets of organized crime, its core is a story of redemption through the influence a mysterious child, Katia, has on each of these characters. After a fight with Serzh, Lera encounters Katia walking alone on the road. Katia tells Lera that her parents left for Italy and she is going to stay with her grandmother; Lera offers to drive the girl to her grandmother’s, but Katia does not know where she lives. It quickly becomes apparent that Katia is not an ordinary little girl. In the car, Katia recites Nikolai Gumilev’s poem “The Giraffe” (“Zhiraf”, 1907), which carries the theme of using art as a cure for sadness. This resonates with Lera’s situation, and she remarks that it is “entirely not a children’s poem.” Later, after Katia scolds Lera for cursing, she questions how to put together the facts that Katia was abandoned by her parents and doesn’t know where her grandmother lives, but also can recite poetry and has an aversion to cursing. In a line that summarizes the film’s conflict between realism and fantasy, Lera informs Katia that Lake Chad, mentioned in “The Giraffe,” is not some mystic location, it’s in Africa.

On the way to the city, Lera and Katia stop at the brothel, which is modeled after an Old West Saloon. Upon arrival, they learn that one of the women has been injured and needs to go to the hospital—Lera decides to leave Katia at the brothel and takes a short trip to the hospital. Left alone, Katia recites poetry to the prostitutes working at the brothel, this time Osip Mandelstam’s “On the moon doesn’t grow…” (“Na lune ne rastet…”, 1914) Again, this poem touches Katia’s listeners—they dress her up in their clothing and take care of her. Yet, when they are distracted and leave Katia alone, she is kidnapped by a truck driver, Petrovich.

motylekPetrovich is introduced separately from the main characters as an opera-loving, drug trafficking driver who has just stolen a significant amount of the substance that he is transporting. On the road, he comes across Lera’s brothel, sees Katia dressed up as one of the prostitutes, and takes her. The film suggests that he is sexually interested in Katia, but when she tells him that she was on her way to her grandmother’s and another woman took her there, he begins to suspect that she was kidnapped and decides to help her find her grandmother. Petrovich tells Katia about how he was abandoned in the woods as a child; she encourages him to sing more and tells him that as long as someone is alive, they can change. Katia’s influence sparks a shift in Petrovich’s character and eventually leads him to sacrifice himself to save Katia.

motylekThe final act centers around Lera’s husband, Serzh, a government official who attends a surreal gambling parlor that features men in water tanks that must find the correct key to free themselves or drown. Serzh loses everything on a bet and must soon participate in this horrifying version of roulette himself. Serzh escapes from the hitmen sent after him and, after Lera realizes that she will die soon, is tasked with taking Katia to her grandmother. On the way, Serzh stops at the club to pay his debts and attempts to escape from the tank himself. After surviving the ordeal, Serzh takes Katia to his sister, Anna, whom he asks to find Katia’s grandmother. As he walks back to his car, he finds a butterfly sleeping on the ground before he is shot by hitmen sent by the club. In the final scene of the film, Lera, Serzh, and Petrovich find themselves in a forest and approach Katia, who recites Marina Tsvetaeva’s “How many plunged down this abyss…” (“Uzh skol’ko ikh upalo v etu bezdnu,” 1913).

motylekThe images of the moth and the butterfly occur throughout The Moth. Lera encounters moths frequently: one flutters around her radio dial in the car at the beginning of the film and she sees one in a gas station restroom when her illness flares up. These moths flutter around sources of light, conveying Lera’s search for meaning in her life and impending death. Butterflies tend to be associated with Katia. When Lera finds her on the road, the ground is covered with sleeping butterflies. The brothel has butterfly decorations, and Serzh’s sister, Anna, has a large butterfly collection that fascinates Katia. The scene in which Serzh finds a sleeping butterfly on the ground before his death is reminiscent of Andrei Tarkovsky’s birds in The Mirror (Zerkalo, 1975). Katia’s presence allows each of the main characters to examine and better their souls. One of the film’s most striking images shows Katia standing by a tree with a coat covering her entire body – the collar is raised over her head like a halo. When the coat is removed, the image retains its iconographic elements by putting a white hood over Katia’s head.

Katia’s presence introduces an element of childlike wonder into the lives of the film’s three main characters and offers them a chance at redemption before their deaths. The film utilizes early 20th century poetry as an example of how art can be imbued with wonder and simplicity, yet not be exclusively for children. Katia is also physically brought to the centers of each vice portrayed in the film, and without exception she affects the lives of the adults she encounters. While it is not uncommon for films to address morality by advocating a child-like (or Christ-like) approach to life, the way The Moth gives these themes depth through extra-textual references and its developed structure of visual symbolism is commendable.

Brian Kilgour
University of Wisconsin-Madison

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The Moth, Russia, 2016
Color, 93 minutes
Director: Konstantin Khudiakov
Script: Ivan Okhlobystin
Cinematography: Sergei Kozlov
Composer: Vladimir Podgoretskii
Production Design: Ekaterina Zaletaeva, Irina Ivanova
Cast: Alena Babenko, Anatolii Belyj, Marta Timofeeva, Artur Vakha
Producers: Vadim Remizov, Alena Babenko, Georgii Gavrilov, Igor’ Pronin, Iuliia Zaitseva, Iuliia Cherniakovskaia, Maks Pavlov
Production: KIT, Forma Pro Films

Konstantin Khudiakov: The Moth (Motylek, 2017)

reviewed by Brian Kilgour © 2020

Updated: 2020