Like A Squandered Sunday, The Ear wasn’t released until the after end of the Cold War, in 1989, as its portrayal of Czechoslovakian political life, in the ‘Normalisation’ post-’68 period, is damningly satirical. When those in power can’t stand criticism you know you’re in trouble (see Trump). This is another of the Time Frames strand at the Leeds International Film Festival, The Ear narrates the squabbles of a government minister and his wife in the aftermath of an official reception at Prague Castle, which is shown in flashback.
This was The Ear’s writer’s last film as he died of cancer in 1971. Procházka had done well to survive as a filmmaker for so long because he constantly pushed against official censorship. Director Karel Kachyňa continued to have a fruitful career (despite having made several films with the ‘frowned upon’ Procházka). Peter Hames, in The Czechoslovak New Wave, suggests that Kachyňa successfully portrayed Procházka as the ‘ideas man’ whilst he was merely a metteur en scene (he ‘just’ shot the script).Whether this was a betrayal I don’t know; it was just as likely to have been a pragmatic position to take against repression. Whatever the case, Kachyňa’s direction is perfect in its portrayal of Ludvik’s (the minister) growing conviction his days are numbered.
He and his wife return from the party to find things aren’t as they should be at home. Doors are locked; then unlocked. Things have been moved and there are men in the garden (it is the middle of the night). Ludvik thinks back to the evening, using ‘subjective’ shots (we are Ludvik), trying to find clues that may signify his fall from favour. His wife, Anna, is both pissed (drunk) and pissed off because Ludvik has forgotten their wedding anniversary again. Radoslav Brzobohatý and Jirina Bohdalová are superb as the warring couple and their collapsing marriage mirrors the political paranoia of the time. The political is personal as Ludvik had only married her for convenience and all his actions as a government minister – and by extension true of all government ministers – are about self-survival.
The titular ‘ear’ are bugs the secret police have placed to listen for sedition. The couple even have to have sex in the kitchen to get some privacy. In the absurdist tradition of Czechoslovakian cinema, there are a number of batty scenes, including a toilet that won’t flush and an invasion by goons who want some booze.
The Ear is another example of the brilliant ‘new waves’ of eastern Europe during the ’50s and ’60s.
This film took 20 years to be seen because the post-’68 Soviet-backed Czechslovakia government unsurprisingly didn’t like it. The film was Drahomíra Vihanová’s feature debut and the political fallout meant she only directed two more fiction films and they were after the end of the Cold War; she died two years ago. The film is based on Jiří Křenek’s autobiographical story, about a bored officer who wakes with a hangover regretting he’d spent all his money boozing, who spends the day wallowing in self pity.
Although he doesn’t do anything all day the film is incident packed with banality: swatting flies, killing rats, affectionately chatting to a young girl (a neighbour). Although the film is not expressionist, it is a representation of Arnost’s (Ivan Palúch) mental state which, in the days when going to church was the prime Sunday activity, was unlikely to be full of joie de vivre particularly with a regretted hangover. It’s part of the Time Frame strand of LIFF2018 where the films’ plots cover no more than 24 hours; though A Squandered Sunday chronology is sometimes confusing. The film starts with a memory of his mother’s funeral and a statement – by a girlfriend? – that he is ‘too far way’. This ‘far awayness’, it becomes clear, is ennui, not one precipitated solely by middle age but also by the Soviet invasion of 1968. Flashbacks to military lectures about nuclear annihilation give Arnost’s ennui a political dimension. When he wakes up Arnost puts on his radio and hears of natural disasters in Italy and Morocco. Clearly, it isn’t just his life that is shit.
Vihanová doesn’t present this in a straightforward way; after all everything is filtered through the disturbed consciousness of Arnost. He looks out of his window several times and there’s always a dog digging a hole next to a blind man. Or is it the same moment many times? She also favours Eisensteinean montage of repeating the same event in rapid succession. Confusion is fed by the repeating shot of the young woman we saw at the start who is mirrored by the young pre-pubescent neighbour and the middle-aged barmaid who wants to marry him. Are they the same person or three ages of women or three characters? Answer: probably all three.
This uncertainty, along with the formal devices, situate Squandered Sunday firmly in the Czech ‘new wave’ and, in a scene where Arnost finds himself interrogating two female sunbathers who’d wandered onto military property, it’s as if the protagonists of Daisies have shown up to wreak more havoc. Their sexy irreverence plant Arnost into even more misery. The absurdism of the film is typically Czech and is perfect for puncturing the self-importance of officialdom. In the UK this was likely to be couched in humour, such as the Carry On series, but in Czechoslovakia it was much more painful as it has an existential edge that although you can laugh you know it won’t cure anything.
There a number of translations of the title. The subtitles at the screening suggested A Wasted Sunday, others include Deadly Sunday and Killing a Sunday. It doesn’t matter what it’s called, it is a classic of the Czech new wave.
LFF came up trumps with this comedy roadtrip. I enjoyed the film very much and was dismayed that the morning showing was not well attended. When Olmo Omerzu introduced his film I thought that this tall, gangling young man looked vaguely familiar and by the end of the film I had realised that I’d seen him receive praise at the Bradford International Film Festival for his first feature A Night Too Young (2012). It’s great to see a young filmmaker growing in confidence on this his third feature. Just as in A Night Too Young, the new film takes two younger teenagers as its entertaining central characters. In the earlier film the boys were 12 but here they are a couple of years older – but still not old enough to be driving across the Czech Republic. In the Q&A that followed Olmo told us that the script had been written by a teacher and that it had won a prize in a radio drama competition but that the ‘bad language’ content had made it impossible to broadcast. Omerzu took a long time to find two young non-actors and they strove to learn the script. The result is an absolute joy.
The film opens with what I thought at first was a hunter dressed in a fancy dress costume as an enormous flightless bird. But then I realised it was an overweight boy rather alarmingly carrying what seemed to be an assault rifle. But any fear was soon undercut by his struggles to clamber over some large pipes leading into a lake, not helped by the hood of his costume falling over his eyes. This is Heduš and soon we also meet Mára who has hot-wired a car and reluctantly accepts Heduš (who he knows) as a travelling companion. Soon, however, Mára appears to have been arrested and the car impounded. Olmo Ormetzu is telling the story in non-linear fashion and we return to the road trip via the interrogation of Mára by a female police officer. But the key to the narrative is that we very gradually begin to doubt the story that Mára is telling. Is it all a fantasy with a simple explanation or did it really happen precisely as he recounts it?
This is a road trip and the boys meet various characters and have various adventures. These are not ‘bad lads’. Mára is very bright and cocky, Heduš is naïve and still child-like – his rifle is a toy, but proves useful on a couple of occasions – but he is also quite resourceful. It isn’t difficult to root for them. The two police officers are rounded characters too, the male one being more aggressive but the female one more cunning. We are on the boys’ side. As the title suggests, it is winter and not the best time to be ‘on the run’. The winter landscapes are presented in drab colours and in compositions for the CinemaScope frame by Lukás Milota who has shot all three of Omerzu’s films. Music is important in road movies and there is an interesting mix here. I should have asked the director about the soft reggae track. The film is well-edited to strengthen the narrative drive incorporating a non-linear structure. The dialogue is beautifully written and the performances by the boys are exceptional. The ‘bad language’ mainly arises from two young teenagers with vivid imaginations confronted at one point with a young woman in her early twenties thumbing a ride. But enough of that, there are plenty of adventures and something magical about Mára’s stories of his grandfather who taught him everything he knows (including how to revive houseflies!).
I hope some enterprising sales agent manages to sell the film for distribution in the UK. I can’t imagine anyone not enjoying Winter Flies. I won’t be so slow to recognise Olmo Omerzu next time and I look forward to the possibility of seeing his next film. Here’s the international trailer:
The first of this year’s London Film Festival offerings that I was able to catch was introduced by a festival advisor as something exotic – a film from Belarus. And indeed, Belarus does produce very few films. It’s very much an ‘in between’ part of the world – in between Poland and Russia, the Baltic states and Ukraine. Throughout history it seems to have been occupied by its neighbours and the present state dates only from the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1990. It is known for its autocratic president in power since 1994 and has some of the lowest international standings for press freedom and general democracy indicators. A place to get away from perhaps? That is certainly true for the film’s protagonist Velya (Alina Nasibullina). The year is 1996 and Velya, a young woman in her early 20s is determined to acquire a US visa, allowing her to travel to Chicago, the home of ‘house music’. Velya is a law graduate but would prefer to be a DJ rather than practise law.
During a spirited intro and a Q&A after the screening the seemingly appreciative audience learned that the writer-director Darya Zhuk was actually drawing on her own experiences in the 1990s. She did get to the US to study film and has now been able to find funding outside the state system to make her début feature. Crystal Swan was programmed by LFF in its ‘Laugh’ strand. I find these strands annoying and often misleading. I certainly smirked a few times and might even have laughed out loud on occasion, but this isn’t what I would see as a simple comedy. Instead it is more akin to the kind of social satire that is often found in Eastern European cinema and I was reminded of several films, but most of all a Romanian film from 2011, Adalbert’s Dream. That film was set in 1986 before the end of Soviet-style communism but the social satire is similar.
The basic premise of the plot is that Velya attempts to forge a letter presented to the US Embassy purporting to confirm that she is a manager at a small crystalware glass factory (she buys a letterhead for the factory’s stationery). But she makes a mistake with the phone number of the factory and when the Embassy official tells her that they will phone the factory to confirm details, she realises the hole she has fallen into. She must travel to the town known as ‘Crystal’ and find the house with the telephone fitting the number on her application and attempt to intercept the Embassy’s call. Cue general mayhem in small-town Belarus, where the household in question is preparing for the wedding of the son of the house. Just like weddings in the North of England, a wedding in Belarus brings out the best and the worst of guests, especially when fuelled by vodka.
I was engaged by the film and I enjoyed it up to a point. There aren’t many dull moments and most of the time there is genuine vitality in the storytelling. For a début film it works well and there is a great performance in the lead role. Alina Nasibullina is intelligent, attractive and vivacious with her colourful outfits, but the narrative includes very dark moments as well as moments of slapstick and good humour. In this sense it is a film for the #MeToo generation. Darya Zhuk told us that when she accompanied film screenings in the East of Belarus (i.e. closer to Russia) she did get a significant number of negative comments (about insulting the Motherland), but when she screened the film in the capital Minsk and in the West of the country it was generally well-received. This makes sense. The script doesn’t pull punches. The men in Crystal behave badly after too much vodka and there is an odd sub-plot involving Velya’s mother (the curator of a Minsk museum celebrating the success of Minsk’s population in the fight against the Nazis) and Velya’s dopehead boyfriend. During the Q&A the film’s supporters were vocal in their praise and I suspect Crystal Swan might do well in the US. I doubt it will get a UK release but you never can tell. The title, by the way, refers to one of the products of the factory which since independence has laid off workers and paid compensation in the form of glassware. The only real hope in the film is that the youngest boy in the Crystal family may turn out OK. Otherwise the film has an open ending.
As the trailer below indicates, the film is presented in Academy ratio. I think the director said she thought this was appropriate to re-produce the way she saw things in the 1990s before TVs in Belarus went widescreen. The trailer also features the bright and optimistic colours that Velya wears.
MUBI celebrated the achievements of Milos Forman, who died in April this year, by streaming two of his earliest films. The first, completed in 1963, comprises two short films put together ‘after the event’ since separately they would have less chance of being programmed. Kdyby ty muziky nebyly or If there were no music concerns an annual celebration (that started in 1961) in the town of Kolin honouring the memory of a famous 19th century composer František Kmoch who was born close to the town in Bohemia where he opened a music school. (Forman was himself from Bohemia.) Two local brass bands are scheduled to perform at the ceremony. The bands are mainly made up of older amateur musicians but also include some young men. The film’s main plot device is a motorcycle race that takes place on the local streets at the same time as the concert. One young man in each band daydreams about riding a motor bike and absents himself from the performance in order to watch the race. Both are dismissed by their bands but then sign up for the other band. IMDb categorises this film as a documentary but it isn’t. Although the majority of the band members are non-professionals, there are professionals from what would later be recognised as Forman’s ‘stock company’ in leading roles. Just 33 minutes long, the film was shot on 35mm equipment borrowed from the Barrandov Studio.
Konkurs (Audition) (47 minutes) was the first of the two films to be completed and was a more ‘personal’ project for Forman which was expanded from an initial idea for a 15 minute film shot on 16mm using Forman’s own camera (operated by the great Miroslav Ondricek). The link with the brass band film is the attempt to prepare musicians but this time it’s a talent show for girl singers (and their accompanists) auditioning at the Semafor Theatre in Prague. Again, as in the first film, the near-documentary coverage of the audition is provided with a fictional second narrative in which two young women are picked out from the group and given their own (separate) back stories. One of these two, Vera Kresadlova (just 18 at the time), later became Forman’s second wife. She’s shown singing successfully in a group with a rock ‘n roll band, but then finds it impossible to perform on her own for the audition. The other young woman lies to her boss at a beauty salon to get time off to sing with her guitar with accompaniment from a young man also on an acoustic guitar.
There are several online sources for detailed reviews/analyses of Auditions. One is by Darragh O’Donoghue on ‘Senses of Cinema’. Another is on Second Run’s site for its DVD release. There is no point in me repeating what is laid out on these sites. Instead I’ll make my own personal response. I like these two short films very much. Watching them makes me very nostalgic for a variety of reasons. I was a young teenager around this time and I recognised all these young people – and the older ones too. Some of the reviews are quite snotty about the music and the question of the ‘generation gap’. It is all very familiar from the UK in the 1960s, especially the pop music. When the Beatles first appeared in the UK at the end of 1962/early in 1963 we had much the same mix of musical styles – rock ‘n roll, the R & B bands, folk music, trad jazz and even the hangover of skiffle. The local bands were a long way from the polished, orchestrated soft pop we saw on TV. I recognised many of the tunes – though the Czech language songs had very different lyrics. Brass bands were a major part of the lives of workers and their families across much of industrial Northern England and the culture clash of the brass band v. TV features in A Kind of Loving (UK 1962). I can see why Forman wants to poke fun at the bandleader in If there were no music played by Jan Vostrcil but I think he still has some feeling for the traditions of the band. The audition montage in Konkurs is repeated in Forman’s first American film, Taking Off (US 1971), a film I really enjoyed on its circuit release in 1971.
It’s good to see films from the Czech New Wave – so influential on later British cinema – and it’s worth remembering the 50th anniversary of the ‘Prague Spring’ that ended with Russian tanks taking control of the city and leading to Forman’s decision to move permanently to America. I haven’t seen all his American films, partly I think because I was slightly disappointed by his embrace of American culture. He tended to see Taking Off as a failure, blaming himself for making a European art film in America. I saw it the other way round with him showing American filmmakers how to make more interesting films. A Blonde in Love (1965) was the other MUBI screening and a review will be posted soon.
Incarnation is the latest DVD release by Matchbox Films. It’s a first time effort by Filip Kovacevic, a 27 year-old maths graduate who also produced and co-wrote this low-budget film. The basic narrative concept he uses is the ‘time loop’, a familiar idea that can be applied to various generic narratives. The few reviews I’ve found of the film refer mainly to American films and to science fiction. That’s not surprising perhaps and many young filmmakers worldwide look to major Hollywood product for inspiration. I haven’t seen many of the American films reviewers reference (such as Looper quoted on the poster below) but Source Code is an interesting comparison, though the vast difference in budget and therefore lack of stars and effects pushes Incarnation in a different direction.
The basic premise is that a young man (played by Stojan Djordjevic) wakes up on a bench situated at a junction of five pedestrianised streets in the centre of what I assume is Belgrade. He doesn’t know who he is and he hasn’t made much progress in working out his situation before four men in black suits and white shirts wearing white face masks corner and shoot him. After a few seconds of blank screen, our hero wakes again on the same bench and the cycle is repeated. It takes a few more loops before our hero begins to make some progress, realising eventually, for instance, that there are five potential escape routes.
The film I was actually reminded of was Tom Tykwer’s Lola rennt (Run Lola, Run, Germany 1999). In that film, the cycle is only repeated three times and the ‘chase’ is about delivering a sum of money in time so Lola can save her fiancé. I was reminded perhaps by the running through the streets of Belgrade (instead of Berlin), but also by the sense that the film was like a videogame (much discussed in 1999) with the central character ‘learning’ each time and improving his/her chances of success. Much depends on the other characters on the street – and whether they are part of the same fictional world as the hero. In Incarnation, our hero does learn something from other characters, though never enough to fully understand what has happened – he’s going to have to work that out himself. The videogame references are strengthened by the clues the protagonist finds (which will perhaps take him to the ‘next level’) and by the pounding score for the chase sequences. I’ve no intention of spoiling the narrative pleasure in the film. All I’ll say is that the cycle is completed many times but that the film is relatively short for a feature. Some reviewers have not been satisfied by the ending but I thought it was quite appropriate.
It’s worth focusing on the film’s strengths. Belgrade looks an interesting city and it’s unusual to see a Serbian film in the UK outside a festival. With little money available, Kovacevic must have spent most of it on hunting for locations and then setting his cinematographer Uros Miltunovic loose to create some exciting chase sequences. There are a few scenes set away from the bench and the streets and these too work well. The choice of outfits for the mysterious hitmen also works very effectively. It’s a relief that though their look has been copied from various sources including the Matrix films, there are no special effects as such (apart from the fake blood for wounds!). The film has minimal dialogue and much of it is actually the young man voicing his own hopes and fears. In the UK trailer below the film appears to have been dubbed (the version I saw was subtitled) but I don’t think that’s much of a drawback in a film mainly focused on action.
You’ve seen it all before, so is it worth another go? I’d say yes, partly to enjoy the thrilling camerawork and also to see Belgrade. Stojan Djordjevic is an ‘everyman’ most audiences will be happy to follow. There is also the question of whether a Serbian take on this kind of familiar narrative offers something new. My thoughts certainly turned to that image of the Balkans as a very beautiful region (especially in the sunshine on the streets in a handsome city) which has experienced such terrible acts of violence as little as twenty years ago. Don’t worry, I haven’t given the ending away, but metaphor never seems far away in these kinds of narratives. Incarnation is certainly worth 80 minutes of your time and, who knows, perhaps an hour or two arguing about what it all means?
The DVD is released on 21st May.
This was my fourth selection from my MUBI free trial and I realised that I’ve been waiting to see it since my first encounter with Mészáros Márta’s films in Kolkata in 2009. Mészáros, born in 1931, is one of global film’s major directors of documentaries and fiction features but it is difficult to see her films in UK cinemas. (Second Run, the East European specialist DVD label in the UK, do have this Mészáros film on offer, but none of the director’s other films.) Diary For My Children is an important film for several reasons. According to John Cunningham in his Hungarian Cinema book (Wallflower 2004) it was the director’s most popular film in her home market. It was also very controversial with its release delayed by two years because of problems with the Hungarian censors (because it portrays the ‘Stalinisation’ of Hungary in the late 1940s?). Mészáros had always been more popular in the international market up to this point and the film did win the Jury Prize at Cannes in 1984. It was also an important personal statement for the director as a semi-autobiographical film and the first of a four-part series of films over the next 15 years.
The central character is Juli, a teenage young woman flying back to Budapest in 1947 from the Soviet Union. Like Mészáros herself, Juli was born in Hungary and then taken to the Soviet Union as a child. Her mother is dead and she doesn’t know what has happened to her father. She is accompanied by an older couple who were friends of her parents and in Budapest she will be fostered by Magda, someone else who knew her parents and who is now in a senior position in the Hungarian Communist Party.
I enjoyed the film very much. Juli is played by Zsuzsa Czinkóczi. She had been a child star and had appeared in three films for Mészáros and two for Márta’s former husband Jancsó Miklós. Czinkóczi was 15 when Diary was completed. In the narrative she ages from 15 to 21. It is an extraordinary performance and it is because of her performance that I sometimes felt that I was watching a 1960s New Wave film. Juli has that mixture of vitality and confidence mixed with moments of immaturity and vulnerability that I associate with the young women of 1960s films. She finds herself living in the midst of Party privilege in a large house taken from the bourgeoisie. She is enrolled in the top school in Budapest. But she doesn’t want either of these privileges. Instead she wants to find out what has happened to her father and her other relatives. Magda keeps her on a very tight rein and she has to ‘borrow’ Magda’s pass to indulge her only vice – bunking off school to go to the cinema. Meanwhile, around her, the Stalinists increase their control over Budapest. I felt at a disadvantage because of my limited knowledge of Hungarian politics in 1947-49. At one point, Magda is firm in condemning Tito, the communist leader of Yugoslavia who broke away from the USSR, leading to banishment from the Cominform – the association of socialist states. Magda preaches the Stalinist line promoted by Rákosi Mátyás, the Hungarian leader whose image is central to government events in Budapest alongside those of Lenin and Stalin.
As the film’s title suggests, it is like a personal diary. Juli’s ideas, her fears and her desires are central and we see the political environment in the background. It isn’t until she begins digging that she uncovers clues to what happened to her parents. She has her own intimate memories which Mészáros inserts into the narrative without any warnings or clues. These are scenes that Juli is remembering or daydreaming about when she sees her father in a quarry selecting stone and working on a sculpture or when she accompanies her pregnant mother to the hospital. These are personal memories for Mészáros and she emphasises this by casting the Polish actor Jan Nowicki as both Juli’s father during the dream/memory sequences and János, her father’s friend who escaped to France in the 1930s but returned to Hungary after 1945. Mészáros later married Nowicki. Diary was photographed by Jancsó Miklós Jr., her son from her second marriage to the director Jancsó Miklós, perhaps the best-known Hungarian filmmaker of the period.
Little sense of Hungary as a defeated Axis supporter came across to me, but perhaps that is the point – everyone has to survive in the new system and the past is quickly forgotten if bringing it up would mean criticising the Russians. János does talk about the war and the (British?) air raids which killed his wife and disabled his son. He will become the character through whom Juli learns about the past. Juli’s ‘adopted’ grandparents are an odd couple. The man does provide Juli with some clues about the past, but the woman is a very sketchily-presented figure.
Juli’s story is in one sense a ‘coming of age’ story, though some of the most common elements of that genre are not followed up and the story is complicated by the political struggle. Juli changes when the evidence of how the system really works is brought home to her. At other times she does the kinds of things teenagers do. She has a boyfriend who she met at school, but she tells him from the start that she doesn’t love him. What she wants at this time is a friend of her own age. Mészáros Márta is an immensely important female filmmaker but there have been debates about the extent to which Diary for My Children is a feminist film. In one sense, simply making the film in the patriarchal Hungarian system, which still seems to have prevailed in the 1980s, is a feminist statement. In the next film in the series, Diary For My Lovers (1987) Juli travels to Russia to go to the Moscow Film School because the film schools in Hungary don’t admit women. This is again an autobiographical statement. Here is an extract from an essay by Catherine Portuges on the Second Run website (the full essay comes with the DVD):
. . . the film is neither purely fictional nor entirely autobiographical, nor, for that matter, strictly speaking a product of what has been called ‘women’s cinema’. Rather, by maintaining an intricate balance between personal exploration on the one hand and historical investigation on the other, Mészáros’ cinematic method transforms and expands its autobiographical dimension by alternating sequences in which the historical context, marked by the use of archival footage, is dominant. This structure positions the viewer in a way that avoids both the more complete distancing of documentary and the more individually-motivated conventions of autobiographical cinema. . . . Diary for My Children transcends traditional categories of genre, yet it functions as a kind of history . . . in which different angles of vision operate to analyse micro-history in order to generate ideas about a larger, macro-historical vision – a private message, in other words, which, in the public mind, becomes a collective one. (Catherine Portuges is the author of Screen Memories: The Hungarian Cinema of Marta Meszaros (Women Artists in Film), John Wiley and Sons, 1993
This is quite a persuasive argument, though for me the archival footage wasn’t so noticeable until towards the end of the film, by which time Juli is ‘aware’. In fact, I identified with Juli so strongly that the division didn’t really bother me. Juli stretches Magda’s patience and won’t listen to the older woman’s justifications – or at least her behaviour means Magda thinks that she just won’t listen. (It is this refusal to engage with Magda’s perspective which is perhaps the disadvantage of the ‘diary’ narrative. I was strongly reminded of a similar narrative in Pawel Pawlikowski’s Ida (Poland-Denmark 2013). Ida is set in the 1960s and an 18 year-old young woman leaves a convent to meet her aunt who has been a judge in communist Poland. Juli could easily be in that 1960s-set film. I’d like to see what happens to her in the other three films, but availability looks a real problem. Perhaps MUBI can find them as well?
As if to prove that Glasgow’s programme offered real diversity, the last film I saw was also the most difficult to read (but also at times quite beautiful in its construction). This is the latest film from Sergey Loznitsa who has now become a Cannes regular. I’m guessing that Loznitsa’s best-known film is Maidan (2014), a documentary about the civil protests in Ukraine in 2013/2014. I was intrigued by that title as I’ve always associated ‘maidan‘ with India as a public space but it turns out to be a Persian word. Loznitsa turns out to be a prolific filmmaker and I’m glad I got the opportunity to see one of his films for the first time. I wasn’t sure what to expect.
Sergey Loznitsa is a Ukranian but has recently lived in Russia and now Germany, which might help to explain the wide range of funders for his latest film. A Gentle Creature is an adaptation – a ‘creative’ one – of a short story by Dosteyevsky. The story dates from 1876 and has had several film adaptations, the most notable perhaps by Robert Bresson as Une femme douce in 1969 and Nazar by Mani Kaul in 1991. There have also been other versions in Russia, Poland, Vietnam, the US and Sri Lanka. Having read an outline of the Dostoyevsky story, I’m at a loss to relate it directly to the new film but it may be that it is a thematic adaptation rather than a ‘faithful’ one.
The film begins with a long shot of a country road. A young woman alights and sets off across the fields. The photography is by Oleg Mutu, The Romanian master whose work I saw most recently in the Polish film United States of Love (2016). The young woman is ‘the gentle creature’ of the title who, like many of the characters in the film, is not given a personal name, and is played by Vasilina Makovtseva. Next we see the woman visiting the post office to retrieve a parcel (actually a box of food, clothes and cigarettes etc.) that has been returned to her by the prison where her husband is incarcerated. Why has this parcel been returned? Her only option is to visit the prison, many miles away, in person and try to deliver it. At this point we begin to realise that we are again in a Kafkaesque narrative where every move to resolve an issue will result in a block or a refusal to act. Our hero is constantly thwarted and thrown into danger as various unreliable characters offer her assistance. The cinematography and some of the elements of the mise en scène suggest that the setting for the journey to the prison could be Soviet Russia before 1990, but other clues confirm it is 2012. It doesn’t seem to matter and as several reviewers have pointed out, the Russian penal system (like the American one?) has been a source of despair from the time of the Tsars until the present. There are suggestions that the prison in the film might be in Siberia and the woman travels by train. The long distances which relatives must travel just adds to the despair.
On the train and at the prison itself, the woman is surrounded by a variety of Russian character types with much drinking and singing of songs. Stoically she walks to and fro carrying her box. We fear that her naïvety will lead her into some kind of forced sex work but somehow she evades her fate. Finally, she falls asleep and in her dreams experiences a kind of show trial and then wakes from a nightmare – only for it to appear as if the real nightmare is about to begin . . . A Gentle Creature is a long film (143 minutes) but for the most part I was fully engaged trying to work out what was happening and what it might mean. It was only the last sequence of the dream that seemed to drag, not because of the dream/fantasy itself but that similar ‘testimonies’ are made by virtually every character the hero has met on her journey. It felt as if we had to hear each one for the narrative to be ‘complete’. I thought I’d got the point after the first two or three but I suspect I wasn’t getting the point at all.
So much talent and effort has gone into the film, supported by so many different organisations from different European countries that I want to support the film myself even if I don’t understand it that well. The performances are all very good, especially the lead. The cinematography and design features are also very good and if the whole mammoth enterprise was achieved with a budget of €2million (IMDb) both the producer Marianne Slot and director Loznitsa are miracle workers. According to the festival programme, the film has been taken up by Arrow Films in the UK, though whether it will get a cinema release remains to be seen. I hope it does find its audience because anyone with better knowledge than me about Russian history and culture will find plenty to get their teeth into.