Savage satire by Sergei Loznitsa in A Gentle Creature eviscerates contemporary Russia.
The Lower Depthsby Alexa Dalby
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
A nameless woman sends a parcel to her husband, in prison for a crime he may or may not have committed. When it is returned to her without explanation, she sets off on a long journey to the distant Siberian prison town where he is – or was – incarcerated to try and discover what has happened to him.
Vasikina Makovtseva is the stoic pilgrim who endures increasingly harsh humiliations as she descends into the unremitting hell of a dysfunctional nation whose inhabitants are brutalised and callous. From the rude and indifferent postmistress at the start to the Hogarthian train passengers consoling themselves with vodka, to the casual cruelty of the prison guards, to the conniving citizens – drunks, crooks and prostitutes – of the town whose entire industry, run by the local mafia, is servicing its dominating prison and fleecing the hapless visitors to it, and whose dilapidated streets are ridiculously named after former communist heroes – there is no respite for the gentle woman of the title as the nightmare continues. And yet despite it all, she carries on, her open face an uncomplaining, expressive reflection of her ordeal.
The title is inspired by Krotkaya, a short story by Dostoyevsky about a husband’s emotional torture and submission of his proud wife. Ukrainian Loznitza’s film is shot with unflinching, brutal realism that’s hard to watch yet is simultaneously compelling. He uses the prison is a wider metaphor for the country as a whole – Russia itself is a self-inflicted and self-imposed giant prison that its people have created voluntarily and from which it seems they are not aware they can seek release – rather they seem to wallow in their suffering – and where even human rights workers are in cahoots with government surveillance. An intriguing, surrealistic fantasy sequence that arises when you least expect it ties the preceding themes and characters together before giving us a premonition of the fresh hell that is about to be visited on the innocent woman. Throughout, sound design is superb, full of ironic contrasts of popular music with the unspeakable.
A Gentle Creature truly is a grotesque, Kafka-esque nightmare vision, a nihilistic yowl of pain. Maybe there is hope in the central character’s perseverance against all odds or is this misguided ignorance or maybe it’s simply the overwhelming violence inherent in the system in a scene that implies that, both literally and symbolically, she is well and truly fucked. Either way, it’s a memorable, savage work.
A Gentle Creature premiered at the 70th Cannes Film Festival and is released on 13 April 2018 in the UK.