Here’s a bleak-hearted, paint-it-black drama from Ukranian director Sergei Loznitsa that couldn’t be more Russian if they gave away copies of ‘Crime and Punishment’ and double shots of vodka with tickets. Which will be enough to scare off most people, then. Loznitsa even borrows the title from a Dostoyevsky short story, though the film’s plot is all out of his own depressive imagination.
Vasilina Makovtseva plays the gentle creature, a bird-like woman so battered by life she might be aged anywhere between 25 and 45. After a parcel of food she posts to her husband in prison is ‘returned to sender’, the woman (she’s never named) travels to a sleazy town in Siberia to visit him.
Actually, ‘passive’ or ‘meek’ might describe her better than ‘gentle’. Makovtseva is virtually silent for most of the movie, battened down and unresponsive as the world throws insults and humiliation at her like bricks. She finds it impossible to squeeze information about her husband out of the nightmarishly bureaucratic prison system. Is he dead? Transferred? Everyone she meets is hateful, from the old dragon who works in the post office at the start to a predatory pimp in Siberia.
At times, there is something almost spoofy about this film’s relentless miserableness. Its 30-minute long hallucinatory dream sequence didn’t work for me – it might be that you need a degree in Russian history to make sense of its allegory on the nature of power. And after two-and-a-half hours of punishing, brutal drama, you’ll probably feel almost as battered as the poor heroine.