Tuesday, 6 September 2011

Vera Storozheva: Traveling with Pets - Путешествие с домашними животными (2007)

Путешествие с домашними животными (2007)

Director: Vera Storozheva
Writer: Arkadi Krasilshchikov
Stars: Kseniya Kutepova, Dmitriy Dyuzhev, Yevgeni Knyazev


 "Natal'ia means ‘natural,'" a priest observes upon learning the name of the new parishioner who stays disturbingly unmoved during her husband's burial service. Struck by the young woman's emotional numbness, Father Petr gives her a holy icon to take home with her. The icon, known in the Russian Orthodox tradition as “Softening of Angry Hearts,” is an image of the Mother of God with seven daggers piercing her chest. The heroine's home is a bleak trackman's hut decorated with railway safety manuals and situated on a busy railway track cutting through a barren winter landscape. The heroine has spent more than half of her life in this soul-destroying setting, ever since her deceased husband “bought her as a slave” from her orphanage at the age of sixteen. Incapable of fathering a child, the trackman exploited Natal'ia as a servant and farmhand, selling the products of her labor to passing trains. His sudden death during one such business transaction brings the heroine her unexpected freedom, along with the necessity to build a new life for herself. Staggering through the desolate surroundings rendered unfamiliar by her husband's death, Natal'ia initially resembles a sleep-walker feeling for her path in the spiritual darkness as she sets out on a journey to reclaim her individuality and “soften her heart” for the people and the world around her. She sells her cow, buys herself a goat, brings home a stray mutt, and befriends a charismatic truck driver. All these steps are significant stages in the process of the heroine's emotional awakening, but as her name suggests, her path will ultimately take her away from the mechanical universe of trains with its predictable schedules and fixed destination points to a spiritual communion with a spontaneous and ever-flowing nature. The theme of a personal search for a higher meaning in a morally disoriented and emotionally indifferent society has been widely explored in contemporary Russian cinema, most recently in such different road-centered films as Andrei Zviagintsev's The Return (Vozvrashchenie, 2003), Boris Khlebnikov and Aleksei Popogrebskii's Koktebel (2003), Aleksandr Veledinskii's Alive (Zhivoi, 2006), and Boris Khlebnikov's Free Floating (Svobodnoe plavanie, 2006), to name just a few. Vera Storozheva's Traveling with Pets shares several characteristics that define to varying degrees the above-mentioned films: movement through physical space that serves as a metaphor for the protagonists' inner processes of self-discovery and personal growth; plots that have elements of parable or magic realism; provincial Russia as a locale that is most conducive of inner reflection; natural and/or religious images as symbols of spiritual transformation or emotional maturation. With the significant exception of Alive , which tackles—however awkwardly—the moral state of Russian society in its direct connection to the long silenced Chechen war, these soul-searching films avoid engaging concrete social and political problems that plague Putin-era society, discussing instead their characters' morality in more universal terms. Traveling with Pets belongs to the latter category: references to contemporary, 21st century Russian reality are limited to a flat-screen television set and glossy magazines featuring Elton John and other western celebrities that the heroine brings home after a trip to the city. Storozheva's choice of a female protagonist is a welcome change to the male-dominated quest for the meaning of life in contemporary Russian cinema, even though in the end the best the film can offer is a stereotypical image of the heroine as a (Holy) Mother, which becomes especially evident when Natal'ia adopts an orphaned child and declines the advances of the entrepreneurial truck driver Sergei. The heroine's association with the image on the icon “Softening of Angry Hearts” further conflates her image with that of Mother Russia, a slumbering land with a great potential where emotional indifference, hard-heartedness, and preoccupation with the material world (portrayed as patriarchal attributes) that must give way to feminine values of Christian compassion, spiritual reflection, and the perception of the unique nature of each individual life.

Reviewed by Elena Monastireva-Ansdell© 2008 in KinoKultura

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