Saturday, September 10, 2016

TIFF ’16: Zoology

There has never been a swell time to be different in Russia, but standing out under the Putin regime is particularly problematic. Middle aged Natasha has never sought attention, so it is understandably alarming for her when she suddenly grows a tail. It is more conspicuous than a scarlet letter, yet she has done nothing to deserve it. The new appendage brings physical discomfort but it also has a bizarrely liberating effect in Ivan Tverdovsky’s Zoology (trailer here), which screens during this year's Toronto International Film Festival.

Natasha’s drab life could use some disruption. She toils as a food and supply procurement bureaucrat at a provincial zoo, where she is regularly bullied by her cliquish colleagues. Technically, she is still too young to be a babushka, but she already has the frumpish look. There are no men in her life, just her hyper-devout mother.

Initially, her tail is just another case of life dumping on her. However, when she seeks treatment at the local hospital, she meets Petya, the radiologist. What starts with a few humane favors prioritizing her appointments quickly progresses through friendship into an unlikely romance. Petya is not scared away by the long windy tail. In fact, he finds her uniqueness attractive—at least that is the positive way of spinning what might uncharitably be called a strange fetish. Regardless, Natasha starts sprucing herself up with makeup and fashionable clothes. However, all the rumors circulating among the Orthodox faithful regarding witches with tails, killing people with the evil eye does not bode well for the long term.

Given the film’s highly unflattering portrayal of a callously judgmental Orthodox Church, it is hard to resist reading allegorical meaning into Zoology, especially with respects to Putin’s policies marginalizing and metaphorically gagging Russian GLBT citizens. Clearly, the way Tverdovsky associates the tail with sexuality is not accidental either. Still, the Orthodox Church are not the only ones on the receiving end of his allegorical satire. A New Age self-help speaker also really takes it in the shins.

As Natasha, Natalia Pavlenkova is pretty incredible. Physically, she looks and carries herself like two entirely different people. However, she and Tverdovsky wisely do not flip a switch a transform her into an ultra-confident super-woman. She still has confidence issues and instinctively defers to authority (which is so very Russian). Nevertheless, there is a dramatic, downright rocky development arc that Pavlenkova makes quite compelling to watch. Similarly, Dmitriy Groshev avoids cliché, giving flesh and blood dimension to Petya. Natasha’s mother (played by stalwart Russian thesp Irina Chipizhenko) is essentially a moralizing stock character, but they are necessary in a film like this.

Despite its borderline body-horror, Zoology is a surprisingly quiet and reserved film. It sure seems to have a lot of points to make, but it never hits us over the head with them. Tverdovsky’s hand is pretty steady on the rudder, but it is Pavlekova’s remarkably assured performance that really makes the film. Recommended for fans of sophisticated contemporary urban fantasy, Zoology screens again tomorrow (9/11) and next Sunday (9/18), as part of TIFF 2016.