Thursday, October 05, 2017

NYFF ’17: A Gentle Creature

It is a matter of inspiration rather than adaptation. Dostoevsky’s short story sparked something for the Moscow-trained, Ukrainian filmmaker, but it is way more upbeat than Sergei Loznitsa’s resulting film. In terms of literary comparisons, think of it as Candide rewritten by Kafka in present day Russia. However, this much abused woman is keenly aware she is absolutely not living in the best of all possible worlds. She lives in Russia, a corrupt and soulless country, where nobody passes up an opportunity to victimize others. Of course, it starts with the venal officials and rolls downhill in Loznitsa’s A Gentle Creature (trailer here), which screens as the “Film Comment Presents” selection of the 55th New York Film Festival.

We never really learn how and why the meek office worker’s husband was sentenced to prison for murder, but it is probably safe to assume he was unjustly convicted. One day, her care package is returned to her, because it was refused by the prison. Concerned about her husband’s status, she makes the arduous journey to the unnamed provincial village, but all her bureaucratic inquiries are rebuffed out of hand.

Apparently, exploiting visitors in “the Gentle Creature’s” position is a cottage industry in this town, which looks unchanged since the Stalinist era. Unfortunately, everyone immediately recognizes she is particularly easy pickings. A grotesque boarding house proprietor quickly gets her claws into the confused wife, but it is her criminal associates who represent the real danger. They claim they can facilitate a visit with her husband, but we suspect their ultimate designs involve something like human trafficking.

Creature is absolutely, positively guaranteed to garner a divisive reception from New Yorkers. Older viewers will be put off by its deliberately slow, agonizingly naturalistic first two hours, as well as a sudden turn towards the surreal in the third act. On the other hand, Social Justice Warriors will be confused by Loznitsa’s not-so-veiled criticism of Russia’s Communist past and possibly outraged by a scene of sexual violence that is admittedly tough to watch (but it is supposed to be horrifying, that’s the whole point). However, for those who understand the film’s historical and cultural context, it is a bracing indictment of contemporary Russia, both socially and politically. There are also moments of bitterly dry humor, which is so very Russian.

Granted, the Gentle Creature is such a perfectly passive victim, she often induces groans and face-palms. However, it is important to remember Creature is essentially an allegory, so we should expect a level of characterization proportional to Pilgrim’s Progress or Everyman. Still, the “Human Rights Activist” is a rather fascinating exception. When we initially meet her, she is overworked and physically intimidated to her breaking point. Yet, her later appearance suggests she fetishizes her martyrdom.

As the Human Rights Activist (nobody needs bourgeoisie names in a film like this), Liya Akhedzhakova covers quite a gamut, but she leaves us chastened and disillusioned in both her bravura scenes. In contrast, the wafer-thin and sunken-eyed Vasilina Makovtseva is profoundly haunting and disturbing as the Gentle Creature. It also should be stipulated, the ensemble is fully stocked with utterly convincing thugs, bullies, grifters, and freaks.

Pointedly, Human Rights Office is located on Dzerzhinsky Street and the bust of Lenin oversees all the humiliation from its place of honor in the shabby village square. For obviously reasons, Creature was filmed in Daugavpils, an ethnic Russian village in Latvia, “blessed” with a vintage Soviet prison—but to dispute its authenticity or current relevancy would be disingenuous denial at its most risible.

Nor can we argue Creature is a work of perfection. The film’s didactic nature is inescapable and pacing can be an issue, especially in the early going. Regardless, this is an important cinematic statement, produced out of moral outrage and bitter black bile that is light years removed from Loznitsa’s cerebrally constructed documentaries. It maybe isn’t the best film at this year’s NYFF, but it is probably the most significant. Recommended, with a sense of urgency, warts and all, A Gentle Creature screens again tonight (10/5) and Sunday (10/15) as part of this year’s New York Film Festival.