Issue 69 (2020)

Larisa Sadilova: Once in Trubchevsk (Odnazhdy v Trubchevske, 2019)

reviewed by Raymond De Luca © 2020

once in trubchevskThe most dramatic shot of Larisa Sadilova’s newest film, Once in Trubchevsk (Odnazhdy v Trubchevske, 2019), is a close-up of railway tracks before an oncoming train rips across the frame. This image is followed by a shot of Sadilova’s protagonist, played by Kristina Schneider, whose face is intermittently glimpsed between the passing train cars. The noise and speed of this railroad sequence, which channels the roiling shots of trains and tracks in Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera (Chelovek s kinoapparatom, 1929), feels out of place in this low-key film. Like all Sadilova’s movies, Once in Trubchevsk, a provincial melodrama about infidelity, is an ultra-prosaic work that takes an interest in simple people. The woman at the railway station, for example, is returning to her husband after leaving him for her longtime lover, a truck driver. Her name—withheld for much of the film—is Anna. The rush of a train, spliced with shots of an adulteress whose image gets cinematographically splintered, cannot help but recall Anna Karenina. Thus, evoking Tolstoy and Vertov in this otherwise mundane film, Sadilova seems to suggest a different function for storytelling and cinema, one that’s anti-didactic and anti-heroic.

once in trubchevsk Shot in the small Russian town of Trubchevsk not far from the Belarusian-Ukrainian border and close to Sadilova’s hometown in Briansk, where several of her films have been set, Once in Trubchevsk is about a small-town affair. Its protagonist, Anna, regularly commutes to Moscow to sell her knitwear. Along the way, however, she’s picked up by her neighbor (played by Egor Barinov), whose name we never learn, on one of his trucking routes. The two then carry out their illicit romance in roadside diners, motels, and gas stations. It’s never explained why Anna feels so dissatisfied with her husband (Iurii Kiselev) and, more importantly, what attracts her to her dithering lover. It’s Anna who’s prepared to—and eventually does—confess and suffer the repercussions of the romance, whereas he’s a gutless procrastinator unwilling to commit. After Anna comes clean, she moves out of the neighborhood, leaving her husband and daughter behind, and relocates to a shanty residence on the edge of town. But, disillusioned with her new partner, Anna soon leaves him and heads back home. The film’s hourglass plot, besides recalling Eugene Onegin, reflects the simplicity of Sadilova’s film. It is a work about the ordinary that locates us in the slowness of everyday life, in the space-time of Trubchevsk. It’s no wonder that Sadilova begins with a leisurely image of a man fishing and makes good use of non-professional actors.

once in trubchevskThe film’s standout performance, indeed, comes from an untrained actress, Evdokiia Borovikova, playing herself. She rents her cottage on the edge of Trubchevsk to Anna and her lover and instructs them in the ways of love, boasts about her photographic memory, and regales them with stories from life during the war, reliving those events—a partisan hid in her family’s attic—as if they occurred only yesterday. Sadilova describes Borovikova as a personification of the Domostroi, a sixteenth-century household manual written by a Russian monk offering guidance on everything from conjugal relations to table manners (Sulkin 2020). It’s a conservative text but one pleading for unity amidst turbulent times. “Families must stay together,” Borovikova repeatedly says. Born in 1936, she’s a primary source from a different era, a holdover from revolutionary times, who stands her ground in the twenty-first century with fearlessness and frankness.

once in trubchevskThe film’s pedestrian qualities are made all the more ironic by its title. The Russian word odnazhdy can mean “once,” as in a single occurrence, but it can also mean “once upon a time,” as in the way a storybook might begin. So Sadilova’s film translates as both Once in Trubchevsk, referring to the singular affair of its protagonists, and as Once Upon a Time in Trubchevsk, stoking spectatorial expectations for some sort of magical encounter. Yet there’s nothing fantastical—nothing skazоchnoe—about Sadilova’s movie. The romance at its center, which does have a disruptive effect on her characters, could not be portrayed with less fanfare. The film lacks sex scenes; seasons change without mention; old women gossip; and holidays are celebrated unabated. The film’s only hint of pizzazz comes with Anna’s colorful dresses, which echo back to the floral textiles worn by one of Sadilova’s earlier heroines, Maya, a seventeen-year-old Tajik girl in She (Ona, 2013), a film about Russia’s migrant communities. Seen in bold yellows and reds, Anna injects a touch of flair into her provincial reality. Her dresses, though, like Sadilova’s self-ridiculing title, only call attention, literally highlight, the ordinariness of this cinematic world.

once in trubchevsk Even Sadilova’s cinematographer, Anatolii Petriga, doesn’t go out of his way to make Trubchevsk pop onscreen. Besides one ominous, Hitchcockian shot of a flock of birds, Once in Trubchevsk features no remarkable camerawork or striking visuals. It’s as if embellishing or “cinematizing” this small Russian backwater would somehow be dishonest to its nature. The film implicitly asks if a movie needs cinematography to be considered cinema. In this way, then, Sadilova suggests an alternative function for filmmaking unaligned with the heroic project laid out by Vertov in Man with a Movie Camera, which, though capturing scenes from ordinary life, transforms the world into nothing but cinematography. Film, in Sadilova’s hands, does other things. It allows us to experience a place most of us will never encounter; it invites us to get a little fatigued, to reconnect with what it means to be bored; and it suggests how a provincial woman might have an affair just because she can. There’s not a whiff of Tolstoyan moralism to Sadilova’s narrative. Her Anna isn’t punished. Rather, we end up sympathizing with this adulteress who just needed a momentary change of pace; her affair is something to do. Once in Trubchevsk is a work without big ambitions.It doesn’t answer any questions because it doesn’t raise them; it shows, not tells.

once in trubchevskYet what’s so interesting about Sadilova’s project is that it lacks the oppositional or avant-garde edge of experimental “slow cinema” in which nothing happens. This subgenre of arthouse film, pioneered by directors like Chantal Akerman, Andrei Tarkovsky, and Andy Warhol, makes a self-conscious statement against mainstream cinema by emphasizing contemplation, deceleration, and non-narrative “action.” Once in Trubchevsk, by contrast, moves slowly, but it neither makes the same intellectual demands on viewers as does “slow cinema” nor remotely approaches the metaphysical as movies like Tarkovsky’s are so wont to do. It even lacks a long take: the cinematographic signature of “slow cinema.” The film lapses past us like a day spent fishing; things do happen, but unobtrusively so. Sadilov occupies a space—a “zone”—between art cinema and the mainstream. Thus, it would also be a mistake to view Once in Trubchevsk as a documentary, though it does borrow traits from cinéma vérité. It’s a “slice-of-life” movie that straddles the line separating narrative from life, the real from the reel, in a way that recalls late Soviet bytovoe kino.

once in trubchevsk The place of late Soviet melodramas in Sadilova’s creative work is the stuff for a dissertation. For its part, Once in Trubchevsk harkens back to the Soviet-style holiday celebrations in Naum Ardashnikov and Oleg Efremov’s The Old New Year (Staryi Novyi god, 1980), the rule-breaking heroine of Vladimir Fetin’s Sweet Woman (Sladkaia zhenshchina, 1976), the Victory Day celebrations of Marlen Khutsiev’s I am Twenty (Mne dvadtsat’ let, 1965), and, most notably, Georgii Daneliia’s The Autumn Marathon (Osennii marafon, 1979). Sadilova’s irresolute male lead, as if quoting Andrei Buzykin, Daneliia’s impotent protagonist who finds himself in the throes of a mid-life crisis, repeatedly says to Anna: “Everything will work out.” Like Buzykin, he refuses to take responsibility for his own actions. Importantly, if somewhat unexpectedly, this hand-wringing reminds us of Donald Trump’s empty assurances about the global pandemic. “It’s all going to work out fine,” he said at a rally in February. In Once in Trubchevsk,Sadilova taps into an essential habit of cowardly men: the deferral of responsibility.

On a different note, though, the revival of de-aestheticized tragicomedies reminiscent of late Soviet bytovye kino, thematizing aspects of everyday life in Putin’s Russia is, by far, the most interesting conundrum posed by Sadilova’s filmography. What light do these sorts of movies throw on how Soviet mores persist into the present-day? Given the rise of garish, almost Trumpian, blockbusters in modern Russian film, might there be a politics to de-cinematized cinema? How are gender roles made and unmade outside Russia’s metropolises? For her part, Sadilova withholds explanation. She lets us explore these questions after introducing us to places like Trubchevsk.

Raymond De Luca
Harvard University

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Works Cited

Sulkin, Oleg. 2020. “Zhizn’ rossiiskoi provintsii ostaetsia vo mnogom sovetskoi”. Interview with Larisa Sadilova. Golos Ameriki (15 April).

Once in Trubchevsk, Russia, 2019
Color, 80 minutes
Language: Russian
Director and Screenwriter: Larisa Sadilova
DoP: Anatolii Petriga
Producers: Larisa Sadilova, Larisa Schneidermann, Rustam Akhadov
Cast: Egor Barinov, Kristina Schneider, Iurii Kisilov, Maria Semenova
Production Design: Igor Stoliarov
Production: A Shim Film Company, Arsi Film Company Production

Larisa Sadilova: Once in Trubchevsk (Odnazhdy v Trubchevske, 2019)

reviewed by Raymond De Luca © 2020

Updated: 2020