I wanted to see this movie for a while but held out because, while things at work were super-stressful, I didn’t feel like watching a real downer. Mum and I watched it yesterday and yeah, it’s long, slow and depressing; things start out bad and then get worse, and worse. Then much worse. But it’s very well made.
It’s set in a small town in north-western Russia, near the Barents Sea, and it features some of the most starkly beautiful and mesmerising landscapes I’ve seen onscreen. The story follows Kolya, a mechanic who lives by the sea with his wife and son from the first marriage, and his struggle against the local mayor who wants to confiscate his land for development. I’ve read that the film was meant to be something like a loose reworking of the Book of Job (and Job even gets a mention), except that instead of struggling against God Kolya fights against the Russian state. Guess who wins.
For my Mum, the movie was like a cure for nostalgia and brought back everything she disliked about Russia, whereas I’m a lot more detached where my country of birth is concerned, so I guess it didn’t affect me on the same personal level as much. But the film sure does paint a bleak, vodka-soaked picture of Russia, though it’s not without moments of levity and humour. Except for a portrait of Putin hanging in mayor’s office, the current government of Russia is not explicitly mentioned, but there’s an amusing aside in the scene involving guns and portraits of former leaders of Russia which leaves no doubt as to who it’s referring to.
There’s also a fair bit of intense personal drama between Kolya, his quietly beautiful wife Lilya, his surly delinquent son and his old friend from Moscow who acts as Kolya’s lawyer. I found it interesting that many of the dramatic scenes that, in other movies, would have played out to the max, mostly happen offscreen or are cut short and we only see their consequences. Perhaps because the director didn’t want the personal drama to take too much of the centre stage, when the film aims to be about something bigger.
If something rubbed me a tad wrong, it was the character of the mayor, who is so cartoonishly eeeeevil he could have come from some political comedy sketch (or a Michael Bay movie for that matter). I understand that he was probably meant to be less a character and more like a personification of greed and corruption, but to me he just felt at odds with the rest of the characters, who are all portrayed with shades of grey and who are neither 100% bad or good, i.e. who are real people. Whereas the second the mayor appears onscreen, it’s clear that yep, there’s a bad guy. Also, one of the major characters disappears from the movie some time soon after half-way mark, which was a pity, as the character added a lot to the dynamic. Overall though, definitely worth seeing even if you might need some mood-lifters after.