Issue 69 (2020)

Natalia Nazarova: The Pencil (Prostoi karandash, 2019)

reviewed by Volha Isakava © 2020

prostoi karandashThe Pencil is a second feature film by Natalia Nazarova, shot seven years after her award-winning debut with Aleksandr Kasatkin, Daughter (Doch’, 2012). Nazarova is known for her short films Firefly (Svetliachok, 2015), and a short novella Simply a Concert (Prosto kontsert) in the almanac Petersburg. Only For Love (Peterburg. Tol’ko po liubvi, 2016). Nazarova is an accomplished screenwriter, credited in Kirill Serebrennikov’s feature film Betrayal (Izmena, 2012) and Vladimir Khotinenko’s TV mini-series The Possessed (Besy, 2014). The Pencil won a Special Jury Prize at Vyborg’s Window to Europe film festival.

The Pencil is a school drama set in a provincial town somewhere in Russia’s Northwest, shot on location in the Karelian town of Segezha. An artist from Saint Petersburg, Antonina Zolotareva (played by Natalia Gorelova), arrives in the small town to be closer to her husband, a dissident artist jailed on trumped up charges (played by Vladimir Mishukov). She secures a shabby room in a communal apartment and a job in the local school as an arts teacher. Quickly, Antonina is plunged into conflict with the school’s chief bully, Misha Ponomarev (played by Aleksandr Kol’chevskii), and his gang, who routinely collect other kids’ lunch money and intimidate students into boycotting Antonina’s classes. Antonina learns that Misha’s older brother, a thief-in-law soon to be released from prison, is known for intimidating the locals, from school officials to the police. Repeatedly, Antonina is told by her colleagues and husband to leave the town because she will not “survive it.” We begin to understand that the couple is estranged when Antonina bitterly announces to her husband that his lover, another famous painter, will not be visiting him. After that she stops her visits for a month. During that time Antonina discovers her passion for education, as her younger students become invested and excited about the world of art, much to the surprise and chagrin of the other teachers. Soon tensions with the local teenage gang boil over, leading to a physical confrontation in which Misha and his pals assault Antonina and her entourage of students. In the resulting skirmish Misha sustains a head injury inflicted by Antonina’s protégé, the talented student Dima Demkin (played by Kirill Veselov). Antonina takes the unconscious teenager to the hospital, saving his life. An investigation is launched but its results are unclear, as a series of catastrophic events unfold towards the film’s ending. Antonina finds out that her husband has died in prison, supposedly from a heart attack. As she starts packing to leave town, Misha warns her that his brother has been released from prison. Antonina attempts to flee with Dima, the boy who injured Misha, but they are ambushed on their way. Misha’s brother bashes Antonina’s head in with a log, leaving her for dead, as Misha pleads with him to stop. Dima escapes and we see him taking a ferry out of town and into unknown future.

prostoi karandashThe Pencil is a bleak social drama, very much in line with socially conscious themes in recent Russian independent cinema. Beautifully shot, the film works the contrast between dilapidated buildings and interiors and shots of nature, underscored by the classical piano soundtrack. Shot on location, the film boasts nonprofessional actors in supporting roles, including those of school children. The film begins and ends with industrial shots of the town’s life-sustaining pencil factory, as we witness endless piles of pencils accompanied by the endless rows of logs, or pencils-to-be. It is not surprising that pencil in the film becomes a metaphor for identity and its hopeful metamorphosis. Idealistic Antonina wields the pencil as a weapon that opens up horizons of beauty and culture to the supposedly uncivilized local population. Expendable and uniform, pencils stand for the despair and disenfranchisement of the small-town inhabitants. It is no coincidence that Misha’s first act of aggression towards Antonina is breaking a pencil, a symbolically violent gesture that will foreshadow the real violence ahead.

prostoi karandashThe symbolism in The Pencil works towards fairly predictable didactic ends. Antonina, a modern-day Decembrist wife, is positioned as an enlightened member of the intelligentsia, meant to spread “reason, goodness and timeless values” [razumnoe, dobroe, vechnoe] to the ignorant, apathetic and downtrodden people on the margins. She is, of course, doomed to fail. Antonina is awkwardly courted by the local teacher of “history, literature and PE” (played by Aleksandr Doronin), who attempts to kiss her after a long, passionate diatribe about the futility of her efforts as a modern-day incarnation of the 19th century narodniki (Socialist revolutionaries who went to live and propagate in villages). Cynical and weary, provincial teachers are still somehow able to muster the passion and conviction to debate the role of the intelligentsia in the betterment of the masses. Throughout the film Antonina stands out like a sore thumb: from the early moments when she wheels her suitcase awkwardly through the muddy unkempt streets to her ever-present dark red coat, the only drop of color in otherwise dreary surroundings. The film wears its core message on its sleeve, as noted by many critics in the Russian media, whether this message is interpreted as a cliché or a necessary social truth. Nazarova herself insists on the importance of having a moral message, speaking a truth that resonates with the viewer’s experiences and values (Pugachev 2019).

prostoi karandashEven though the story ends on a violent and tragic note, its hope lies with the boy who escapes, and Misha himself, who suddenly takes an ethical stand that puts his own life at odds with his environment. In this respect, the film’s core humanistic message aligns well with the Soviet genre of school film, a comparison The Pencil consciously draws. Antonina’s character and appearance are inspired by the iconic role of Irina Pechernikova in the celebrated classic of the genre We’ll Survive Till Monday (Dozhivem do ponedel’nika, dir. S. Rostotskii, 1968). The Pencil incorporates staples of the Soviet genre as well: the mentoring dynamics between teacher and students; the ethical dilemmas of coming-of-age; and the complicated relationship between teachers as agents of change and keepers of the status quo. An excellent example of this takes place in a poetic interlude before the film’s tragic ending, when we hear Antonina wax poetic about drawing a person as a sacred rite, and we see the students’ faces around her glow with appreciation of the beauty and humanity around them. These hopeful touches, anchored in venerable cinematic tradition, are effectively juxtaposed with the harsh, documentary-like visuals of the provincial town, familiar to the viewer from other gritty social dramas about today’s Russia.

prostoi karandashAll in all, I would describe the film as effective and transparent in its message and its craft. However, the film does not break any new grounds in its portrayal of class in today’s Russia. In the past few years, we have seen a global resurgence of the topic of class and class warfare in cinema, with Parasite (Bong Joon-Ho 2019) being a particularly poignant example of the topic’s global resonance. The perspective that The Pencil offers unfortunately does not stray from familiar tropes of ethical martyrs, the corrupt state, and the animalistic masses, known in Russian as bydlo. Even in its most pivotal humanist moments, The Pencil is a film about the idealistic teacher, ready to self-sacrifice on the altar of culture and education. If she can’t sacrifice for her husband, she must sacrifice for the uneducated, uncultured masses. The film takes no time at all to get to know any of the students or their families, whose chief role is to be saved by humanistic and enlightened values, rather than being people in their own right. To put it simply, what The Pencil insists on as social truth is actually class-based objectification, a cultural blind spot that effectively becomes a cinematic one.

Volha Isakava,
Central Washington University

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Works Cited

Pugachev, Pavel. 2019. “Natal'ia Nazarova. ‘Kak tol’ko avtor ukhodit, iskusstvo zakanchivaetsia’.” Interview with N. Nazarova. Seans 9 December.

The Pencil, Russia 2019
Color, 92 minutes
Director: Natal’ia Nazarova
Script: Natal’ia Nazarova
DoP: Andrei Naidenov
Production Design: Antonina Kraevskaia
Cast: Nadezhda Gorelova, Vladimir Mishukov, Aleksandr Doronin, Olesia Ivantsova, Aleksandr Kol’chevskii, Alina Khodzhevanova, Kirill Veselov, Evgenii Startsev.
Producers: Denis Kovalevskii, Maksim Dashkin
Production: Victoria Films, Kinostudiia Sol’

Natalia Nazarova: The Pencil (Prostoi karandash, 2019)

reviewed by Volha Isakava © 2020

Updated: 2020