Tuesday, April 09, 2024

ND/NF ’24: Grace

The sleazy truck stops and lonely highways of the remote Karachay-Cherkessia region are not fit places to raise a teen girl, but is there anyplace in Russia where it is safe for families? At least the father and his daughter keep moving, screening DVDs in their makeshift projected cinema. Inevitably, she starts to realize it is not much of a life in Ilya Povolotsky’s Grace, which screens during this year’s New Directors/New Films.

Evidently, this area of Russia is so economically depressed, people cannot even afford names. The end credits simply refer to her as “Daughter,” him as “Father,” and the rest as “Characters.” Clearly, there is no mother, leaving all parental duties to the father.

Unfortunately, her father is stuck on auto-pilot, unable to envision anything else but their hardscrabble nomadic life. She is starting to question him, just as boys are beginning to notice her.

The central father-daughter relationship would ordinarily be relatable across cultures, but Povolotsky depicts it in such an emotionally reserved manner, it will freeze out the vast majority of viewers. Instead, the audience mostly takes a slow cinema tour of the Balkar-speaking Russian boondocks. The film thoroughly establishes the economic stagnation, environmental degradation, infrastructure decay, and police corruption of provincial Russia. Of course, most people over the age of twelve years-old not named Tucker Carlson were already reasonably cognizant of this reality.

It is really hard to understand who this film was programmed for, beyond a small circle of Slow Cinema devotees. Povolotsky is admirably committed to immersing the audience in the circumstances of the Daughter’s life, but his esthetic approach is distancing, to put it diplomatically. However, it can safely be screened without violating any institutional sanctions against Russia, post-Putin’s invasion, because it was clearly produced far outside the state cinema establishment.

Youthful Maria Lukyanova is quietly expressive as the Daughter, which is the film’s saving virtue, at least to a limited extent. Gela Chitava also looks appropriately down-trodden by life as her Father, even before the cops start beating him. Cinematographer Nikolai Zheludovich certainly captures the loneliness of the Caucasus-bordering landscape, but to modest ends.

Frankly, this is the sort of festival film that wards average viewers off festivals. The intentions might be noble, but it is a cold, anesthetizing viewing experience. Not recommended as dramatic, narrative cinema,
Grace screens today (4/9) and tomorrow (4/10) as part of this year’s ND/NF.