Issue 68 (2020)

Konstantin Lopushanskii: Through the Black Glass (Skvoz’ chernoe steklo, 2018)

reviewed by Anthony Anemone © 2020

black glassAlthough he has completed only seven full-length films in a career of more than 40 years, Konstantin Lopushanskii remains one of the few genuine auteurs still working in Russian cinema. Best known, perhaps, for adaptations of literary works by the Strugatsky brothers—Letters from a Dead man (Pis’ma mertvogo cheloveka, 1986), and The Ugly Swans (Gadkie lebedi, 2006)—that are often compared to Andrei Tarkovsky’s science-fiction films (Solaris, 1972, and Stalker, 1979), Lopushanskii has always used cinema as a way to address large social, historical, ethical, and philosophical problems. And if his films are sometimes overly literary and allegorical, they are always unusual, challenging, and thought provoking.

black glassLopushanskii’s latest film is another allegory about contemporary Russia, with philosophical and religious overtones. At the movie begins, Anastasiia (Vasilisa Denisova), a blind 18-year-old girl living in a boarding school for the visually impaired in a small provincial Russian town, is facing a decision that will determine her future. A mysterious man has offered to pay for an eye operation in Germany if she will marry him. Anastasiia’s decision is complicated by the fact that she had been planning to enter the convent adjacent to her school. Her choice, in other words, is between God and self, the religious and secular life. The school director, presumably thinking that the school could benefit from the good will of a rich businessman, pressures her to accept: perhaps this is God’s will for her?  The abbess is more subtle: she tells Anastasiia of a prophecy that she will succeed her as the head of the convent. After several sleepless nights, she agrees to the operation, and the marriage. As we expected, the German specialists are successful in returning her sight, and she finally meets her benefactor, the crass and brutal oligarch Ostrovsky (Maksim Sukhanov), who lives in an isolated mansion, surrounded by servants and security.

black glassTheir relationship becomes a struggle between beauty and ugliness, humble submission and egotistical authority, moral and physical strength, good and evil. She tries to teach him God’s laws, while he instructs her in the ways of the world. Both fail miserably. In the Russian context, Anastasiia is a modern-day version of Fedor Dostoevsky’s Prince Myshkin, an innocent, naïve, and other-worldly idiotka thrust into the maelstrom of contemporary Russian life to test the values of society. Readers of Dostoevsky will hardly be surprised when, in the end, modern society is found wanting. When her attempt to leave Ostrovsky in the name of true love backfires disastrously, she is forced to take extreme measures and, by the movie’s end, achieves the resurrection implicit in her name, and the movie ends with her returning to the convent. 

black glassThe biblical source of the film’s title—“For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known” (1 Corinthians, 13:12)—lends religious significance and irony to Lopushanskii’s theme of blindness and sight. Nastia sees best when she cannot see at all, and despite perfect vision, Ostrovsky is blind to life’s true meaning. But the title also refers to Ingmar Bergman’s Through a Glass Darkly (Sasom i en spegel, 1961), a metaphysical drama that traces the disastrous effects upon one family of the modern loss of faith in God. Yet the two movies are very different: while Bergman’s characters are left with no alternative to modern life without religious faith, Anastasiia rejects the secular realm and returns to the comforting world of traditional religion. Most Russian viewers, however, are more likely to recognize another subtext, closer to home: the immensely popular novel Scarlet Sails (Alye parusa, 1923) by Aleksandr Grin or the even more popular film adaptation by Aleksandr Ptushko (1961). Grin’s sentimental tale of a young girl’s dreams coming true when her Prince Charming rescues her from her drab life is central to the way that Nastya and her schoolfriends imagine her life. Over the course of the film, of course, the fairy tale turns out to be a lie.

Despite beautiful cinematography by Dmitrii Mass, who also shot Lopushanskii’s brilliant feature The Role (Rol’, 2013), Through the Black Glass is one of those movies in which the director’s reach exceeded his grasp. And while some noted Russian critics (Stishova 2019) have been moved by Lopushanskii’s portrayal of the struggle for the soul of contemporary Russian society, to this viewer the movie is more Dostoevshchina than Dostoevsky. The plot coincidences are preposterous, the thematic confrontation between secular and religious life exaggerated, the dialog mannered, and the acting either amateurish (i.e. Denisova’s portrait of a young woman who has been blind her entire life) or outrageously theatrical and over the top (i.e. Sukhanov’s ferocious portrait of the oligarch Ostrovsky). While the main character’s return to her religious vocation may appeal to some in the Orthodox community, the final scene is as unrealistic and unconvincing as the rest of the film.

Anthony Anemone
The New School

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Works Cited

Stishova, Elena. 2019. “Britvoi po glazam: ‘Skvoz’ chernoe steklo’. O pravoslavnoi krasavitse i oligarkhe-chudovishche.” Iskusstvo kino blog, 24 December. 

Through the Black Glass, Russia 2018
Color, 139 Minutes
Director: Konstantin Lopushanskii
Script: Konstantin Lopushanskii
Cinematography: Dmitrii Mass
Production Design: Aleksei Paderin
Editing: Efim Berson
Cast: Maksim Sukhanov, Vasilisa Denisova, Nadezhda Markina, Ol’ga Onishchenko, Andrei Polishchuk, Anna Ekaterininskaia, Elena Zimina, Anna Dulova
Producers: Andrei Sigle, Dmitrii Nikitin
Production ProLine
International Sales: Antipode

Konstantin Lopushanskii: Through the Black Glass (Skvoz’ chernoe steklo, 2018)

reviewed by Anthony Anemone © 2020

Updated: 2020