Saturday, October 29, 2011

Russian Film Week ’11: Siberia, Monamour

The remote reaches of Siberia remain relatively untouched by Communism, National Socialism, and gangsterism. Instead, man must struggle against the forces of nature to survive, including his own human nature. In this rough environment, man often reverts to his worst instincts, but the possibility of nobility remains in writer-director Slava Ross’s Siberia, Monamour (trailer here), the opening night selection of the eleventh annual Russian Film Week in New York.

Lyochka’s father was a war hero, but his grandfather cannot bring himself to tell the boy his father will not be coming back, having died a less than edifying death in the village. Isolated from the outside world, Lyochka’s only playmate is Fang, one of the wild dogs prowling about their cabin. However, his sternly devout grandfather harbors a primal dislike of the canines, shooting on-sight at every opportunity. Yet, as nature films constantly warn us, man represents a greater danger in Taiga Forest, especially a pair of looters looking for icons and an erratic Army captain dispatched by his superiors to retrieve a prostitute for their enjoyment.

Undeniably slow out of the blocks, Monamour starts out as a quiet, deliberate art film, but flips a switch halfway through, downshifting into a Jack London survival story. Given the film’s rather bleak naturalistic view of humanity, it partly shares an ideological affinity with the Oakland writer’s work as well. Ross though is not an ideologue, portraying the grandfather’s abiding faith in terms that become explicitly heroic. In fact, the third act lends itself to sweeping allegorical interpretations, as the old man sets off ostensibly on a desperate trek for help, but perhaps as an act of sacrifice.

Monamour is high-end cinema that will tax those with short attention spans, but it will fascinate viewers who stick with it. The ensemble cast all look like they spent a lifetime on the outskirts of the tundra, particularly the weathered Petr Zaichenko as the grandfather. Likewise, as Lyochka, Misha Protsko’s refreshing lack of cuteness serves the film well. Yet, it is the riveting Nikolay Kozak who drives the film home, vividly conveying the captain’s stirrings of conscience.

While essentially nonpolitical, Monamour does not paint a flattering portrait of the Russian Army, portraying an officer class prone to abuse their power, while the enlisted men labor with decrepit facilities and barely functional vehicles. Still, nature remains the greatest menace, which every character must engage with to some extent throughout the film. It might be deadly dangerous, but cinematographer Yury Rayskiy captures some absolutely breathtaking natural vistas through his lens, deliberately dwarfing the human figures in the process.

In many respects, Monamour is a deeply humanistic film. Indeed, despite the mean and arbitrary character of their lives, the people of the Taiga willingly endure pain and hardship for their fellow human beings. Demanding but ultimately quite rewarding, it is a film of unexpected surprises. Recommended for discriminating audiences, Monamour screens again this afternoon (10/29) and Tuesday (11/1) during this year’s Russian Film Week in New York.