Director: Slava Ross
Writer: Slava Ross
Stars: Lidiya Bairashevskay, Nikolai Kozak, Sergey Novikov
First prize, International debut film festival, Russia, 2011
Best directing, Window to Europe Film Festival, Vyborg, Russia, 2011
First prize, Festival Russian kino 'Moscow Premier Screenings', Russia, 2011
Siberia, MonAmour is the second film of director Slava Ross, who debuted with Dumb Fat Hare (Tupoi zhirnyi zaiats, 2006). It combines with a surprising professional conventionality and originality, stereotype and archetype, and has been deservedly recognized with the main prize at the IX edition of the exuberant “Spirit of Fire” festival in Khanty-Mansiisk for first and second films (19-25 February 2011).
Certainly, watching a film about Siberia at a Siberian festival helps, although the modern architecture of the affluent city of Khanty-Mansiisk—the administrative centre of Yugra Autonomous Region, situated on a rich oil patch along the Irtysh river, close to its confluence with the Ob’—has very little to do with the hard and impoverished taiga life of the film’s characters. Unlike most Russian films in and outside of the main competition, Siberia, MonAmour quite comfortably displayed its identity of a mainstream film, flaunting sound and knowable characters, inhabiting an equally sound narrative, and an excellent camera work (by Iurii Raiskii and Aleksei Todorov), which does not shy away from sentimental, even trite juxtaposition of majestic Siberian panoramas and emotionally charged close-ups.
At the centre of the main, realistic plot-line stands the little boy Leshka (the beguile child-actor Misha Prots’ko), who lives with his fiercely religious grand-dad Ivan (played by the veteran character actor Petr Zaichenko, who received the award for Best Actor) in a remote deserted settlement, called with sad irony “MonAmour.” Both survive on goat milk, some game, and on whatever the boy’s Uncle Iura—the brother of his deceased mother, who lives in a distant village—could smuggle past the watchful eye of his wife Anna, who objects not so much to helping the boy and the old man, but to her husband making those long and dangerous trips deep into the taiga, insisting that they leave MonAmour and move in with them and their three daughters. The twosome, however, especially the boy, are determined to stay put and wait for their long-gone father and son to finally return to the only home they have, unaware that he, once a decorated Chechen-war hero, has been knifed to death in a drunken brawl with his newly found criminal cronies. The mundane dynamics of the relationship between devoted grandfather and his precocious grandson, punctuated by Uncle Iura’s sporadic visits, is thrown into disarray by two criminal antiquarians, raiding the settlement’s abandoned houses for valuable old icons. It so happens that the only precious item they actually come across is in grand-dad Ivan’s house, where they are invited to spend the night. And in defiance of the sacred law of hospitality, the thugs steal the icon, leaving grand-dad almost dead after a skirmish, and the child alone to care for him.
The original and self-sufficient main narrative is intertwined with a secondary, sensational and naturalistic plot line, highly influenced by the aesthetics of chernukha films, which is uncannily remindful of Sergei Loznitsa’s My Joy (Schast’e moe, 2010). This plot-line introduces a couple of military men in search of a woman they should deliver to the commander of the local base. The senior member of the search crew, the Captain (Nikolai Kozak), is a heavy drinking veteran of the Chechen wars, who always seems to bounce on the verge of some kind of major trouble—whether a nervous breakdown or a fatal shootout. His young driver, on the other hand, is a recent, wide-eyed recruit called Zhelezniak, who promptly falls in love with the young prostitute Liuba, whom they manage to buy off her pimps in order to deliver her to their lascivious base commander. Due to a sudden change of heart, however, upon arrival the Captain declares the girl is his niece and therefore off sexual limits. And when the commander pulls rank in his attempts to claim his ownership of her, the Captain kills him and flees with the young lovers.
While the second plot line seems superfluous, it is easy to see its merits with regard to potential audiences—both Russian and foreign. It is rife with ethnic, sexual and gender stereotypes that have proven commercially successful since Aleksei Balabanov’s Brother (Brat, 1996): corrupt and disintegrating power structures, in this case the military; treacherous Chechen pimps and pub owners, who have reached as far as the heart of Siberia; devastating poverty, breeding prostitution and women trafficking, and, to top it all, the possibility of redemption, epitomized by the vigilante hero, who usually is a Chechen war veteran.
Reviewed by Christina Stojanova © 2011 in KinoKultura