Friday, July 28, 2023

The Pencil, on

The humble pencil is a symbol of freedom. It is an instrument of a free press and Milton Freidman famously used it to illustrate the benefits of a market economy and the division of labor. He is right, no one person can make a pencil, but there is a grim looking pencil factory in the Russian Karelian village Antonina Zolotareva moves to, in order to be closer to her imprisoned activist husband. Zolotareva is no Jaime Escalante, but she is the most conscientious teacher her new students have ever had in Natalya Nazarova’s The Pencil, which premieres today on

Zolotareva’s husband was a prominent artist, whose work often criticized the Putin regime (maybe that part is not explicitly stated, but it is clearly implied). Unfortunately, it is all too evident during Zolotareva’s first visit, his spirit has been broken. Nevertheless, she has already committed to living in the nearby industrial town. She too is a trained artist, so she obtains employment at the local under-staffed public school.

Much to her surprise, some of Zolotareva’s students have talent, but the school bully, Misha Ponomarev, does his best to disrupt her classes. Since his brother is a local gangster soon to be released from prison, most of Zolotareva’s colleagues turn a blind eye to his thuggery. Perhaps foolhardily, Zolotareva challenges Ponomarev’s authority, so he responds with greater violence, particularly against the under-sized Dima Demkin, her most promising pupil.

As a side note, I will no longer cover commercial releases from China, Hong Kong, or Russia, because the established film industries have been so thoroughly compromised by the CCP and Putin regimes. That clearly does not apply to this film. It might have had a domestic Russian theatrical release, but it paints a very different picture that what
RT propaganda projects. In fact, it depicts a profoundly corrupt society, in which people regularly ignore the violence around them. Watching The Pencil, it is easy to understand why so many Russians blandly accepted Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.

Zolotareva is also an intriguing character, brilliantly played by Nadezhda Gorelova. She is never a saint and she does not intend to be a crusader. More than anything, she is tired of the lies that our part of the fabric of Russian society. Zolotareva does not have any big speeches. Instead, Gorelova’s small expressions of disgust and exhaustion speak volumes.

The themes and tone of
The Pencil are not unlike those of Andrey Zvyagintsev’s Leviathan. It is maybe not as accomplished as a cinematic statement, but it is still quite a powerful and bracing portrait of an individual in conflict with a morally-compromised society. Highly recommended, The Pencil starts streaming today (7/28) on