Director: Katya Shagalova
Writer: Katya Shagalova
Stars: Leonid Bichevin, Elvira Bolgova, Alexandr Golubev
Katia Shagalova’s second feature film, Once Upon a Time In the Provinces, was one of the highlights of Russian cinema in 2008. Filmed in the city of Podol'sk outside Moscow, it provides a mostly realistic portrait of Russian life that seldom reaches the big screen. It features actors both new and established, and the level of their performances is overall quite high. The film was awarded the International Federation of Film Critics (FIPRESCI) prize at the 2008 Moscow International Film Festival, although it was passed over by the festival jury. Its reception has not been without scandal due to the perception among some Russian critics that it gives a too negative portrayal of the Russian “provinces.” Shagalova both directed and wrote the screenplay for the film, and the work that has resulted clearly carries a distinct authorial message. This review, therefore, will be oriented around that traditional Russian approach to any work of art: What is the author trying to teach us?
The story revolves around a rather complex cast of characters. The first part of the film seems organized around the fraught relationship between two sisters. Nastia (Iuliia Peresil'd) is a young but apparently already washed up television actress, who has come to the provincial town to seek refuge with her sister, Vera (El'vira Bolgova), who is married to and regularly abused by her war veteran husband, Kolia (Aleksandr Golubev). We quickly come to realize that all three of these individuals are profoundly damaged: Nastia is suffering not only from the collapse of her acting career, but more deeply from the guilt she feels for her sister’s banishment from the family and for her brother-in-law’s conscription and deployment to a war zone. Kolia is quite literally damaged from a brain injury suffered during military service; he is consumed with justifiable hatred for Nastia and otherwise prone to violent outbursts of physical violence. Vera’s masochistic love for her husband grows only stronger the more that he batters and torments her. Nastia’s intermittent and clumsy attempts to intervene in her sister’s sad life do nothing but raise the tension in the household.
Reviewed by Gerald McCausland © 2009 in KinoKultura