During the Soviet era, the underground Samizdat literary tradition required true courage and painstaking devotion. Those who spread the work of banned writers risked banishment to the gulags themselves, yet they spent hours hand-copying censored works. Anatoly had that kind of dedication to Varlam Tikhonovich Shalamov, who spent 17 years in Stalinist work camps. He was eventually released and partially rehabilitated, but the last three years of his life were spent in a Soviet nursing home with a comparable reputation. It is there that Anatoly records the finishing lines of Shalamov’s last, posthumous publication in Dmitry Rudakov’s Sententia, which screens as part of the online Russian Film Week USA.
Back in the days of the USSR, a visitor in the night was always bad news. In this case it is Vsevold (some sort of ambiguous KGB figure), dropping off Shalamov, whom he treats like a pack animal. It is a long scene that almost plays like an absurdist Beckett drama, except it carries very specific and significant meaning. Eventually, Anatoly and his young protégé arrive to record Shalamov’s final, dying verses, after collecting the fragments of his last manuscript hidden with friends and family.
Aesthetically (but not ideologically), Sententia (which takes its title from the mantra Shalamov created while at risk of succumbing to fatal sleep during sub-zero Siberian temperatures) shares a kinship with classic avant-garde Soviet cinema. The pace is slow, but the tension is high. Alexey Filippov’s harsh black-and-white cinematography and the unsettling white-noise-ish soundscape further evoke a Lynchian vibe. However, the sense of dread is very concrete and unmistakably rooted in power dynamics of the Soviet system.
Aleksandr Ryanzantsev does not say much as Shalamov, but it is an incredibly brave and physical performance. His emaciated, battered body is exposed for viewers to see—and it is indeed a disturbing sight to behold. Yet, he also projects astonishing dignity in the midst of his degradation.
There are maybe seven or eight scenes in Sententia, at the most. They demand viewers’ full attention, but it will repay their efforts in full. Nothing about this film is easy, but it holds a great deal of power and brutal honesty. Highly recommended, Sententia screens tomorrow (1/26), as part of the online Russian Film Week USA.