Director: Andrei Stempkovskii
Cast: Olga Demidova, Vladislav Abashin, Daria Gracheva, Nikita Emshanov, Aleksandr Plaksin, Georgii Gatsoev
Andrei Stempkovskii’s debut feature length film is a quiet camera drama, ostensibly about the horrors of war. The heroine of the film, Alevtina (Ol'ga Demidova), impatiently awaits news of her son, who is missing in an unspecified combat zone, presented in the brief prologue. In the meantime, Al'ia putters around her apartment, goes to work at her kiosk next to the railroad, and makes weekly visits to the local military functionary to hear no news. Her entrepreneurial friend Lena (Dar'ia Gracheva) opens a kiosk next to Al'ia’s, procuring merchandise from her bandit boyfriend (Nikita Emshanov). To get the kiosk in order, Lena selects a group of non-Russian workers from a large dormitory where they are being exploited and held without papers. While unloading Lena’s truck, a young boy (Georgii Gatsoev), one of those selected, trips, falls, and hurts his hand. Later that evening, Al'ia finds him as she takes out the trash, brings him home with her, and takes him in. Although her motivations are unclear, the boy presumably functions as a surrogate for her missing biological child. Lena immediately misses the boy (having paid for his labor, she wants her money’s worth), accuses Al'ia of harboring him, and warns her not to “get involved.”
Meanwhile, one of Al'ia’s son’s army buddies stops by to tell Al'ia that her son is dead. So: cue the return of the son (Vladislav Abashin). The homecoming is joyless, unsurprising given the lack of emotion in the rest of the film. The “sons” eye one another uneasily, and family dynamics must be renegotiated. For Al'ia, the simplest solution is to restore her biological family unit, and she attempts to abandon the boy in a park. And yet the boy returns home with her, although again, whether this stems from pity, concern, or genuine affection on Al'ia’s part is unclear. The boy’s disappearance means not just an unexpected and unpleasant expense for Lena, but is also a problem for her boyfriend, who pressures her to find him. The boy turns out to be the only witness to a mass-murder perpetrated by the boyfriend and his crew, who are eager to keep him from testifying against them. In one of a number of plot holes, Lena repeatedly declares that she has no idea where the boy is, despite her confrontation with Al'ia and the fact that Al'ia brings the boy to work with her—working in a kiosk twenty feet away, it seems highly implausible that Lena could fail to notice the boy. Her motivation for continuing to conceal the boy’s whereabouts from her boyfriend is similarly inexplicable: given the severity of his legal situation and her callously indifferent attitude toward her “employees,” she has no reason whatsoever to protect the boy. However, Lena’s boyfriend eventually figures out that Al'ia has been hiding the boy and kidnaps him. In a rather contrived dénouement that descends straight into the worst of genre cinema, Al'ia’s son kills the boy’s captors and rescues him before being killed himself for his pains.
Critics often want to position Reverse Motion as a “war” film, one more of so many dealing with the “return of the wounded soldier.” In most cases, the “wound,” whether physical or mental, is made explicit as the soldier comes into conflict with family and friends while attempting to transition back into normal life. But Stempkovskii’s soldiers are less obviously damaged. Although they have clearly been changed by their experiences (Lena’s boyfriend has nightmares and Al'ia’s son is withdrawn and nearly silent), the film is not about their trauma per se, for all of Stempkovskii’s avowed intentions to make a film about the“inner nuts and bolts of the human soul of a person who returns from war and gets involved in the daily course of events.” Similarly, the expected family conflict fails to materialize. Although the son eyes the boy warily and appears slightly jealous of the time Al'ia spends with him, tension is felt only in glances between them rather than erupting into words or actions. ...
Too bad the director has not elaborated on the metaphysical concept behind the title. My limited knowledge of Nietzsche can only prompt that it has to do with the return to the innocent state that allows man to get closer to the eternal and frees him from fears of death. I cannot even say whether the source is The Will to Power or On the Genealogy of Morals. However, I was strongly reminded of another meaning of the phrase: the cinematographic effect when the action is played backward. The film seems to be a flashback to the late 1980s or early 1990s, perhaps, when Russian films were full of unhappy people trying to muddle through their unhappy lives among the ruins of the socialist dream. Those films invariably managed to make some larger-than-life statement on why “One Cannot Live This Way.” The Russians may not have become any happier since, but the genre has lost its novelty.
The film’s heroine, a small-time “entrepreneur” named Alevtina (Ol’ga Demidova), is desperately waiting for news of her son who has gone missing in an “armed conflict zone” (read: Chechnya). She deals stoically with the military commissariat functionary who is annoyed by her persistence, and with her best friend’s admonitions. The said friend, Lena (Dar’ia Gracheva), owns a railroad-side kiosk next to Alevtina’s. Lena’s suppliers are bandits “knocking over” trucks to provide her with goods. One day she takes three Tajik migrants (read: slaves) from a squalid “dorm” for illegal workers to help unload a van. One of them, merely a boy, falls, breaks merchandise, hurts his arm, and disappears. He reappears at Alevtina’s, who feeds him, takes him to a private hospital and hides him from Lena and her murderous entourage. Meanwhile, her son’s army buddy (Aleksandr Plaksin) comes to visit—and to testify to his friend’s death.
One day, her son Anatolii (played by Vladislav Abashin, whom we have seen in the war-scene prologue) returns from the dead. The family reunion, however, is far from a happy scene the viewer would have all the rights to expect from a more conventional movie. It appears that the tears and the joy have been left out of the frame on purpose. In fact, the director has on numerous occasions stated his intention to stay away from any open display of emotion, opting instead for long silences and almost dispassionate faces, for showing the aftermath of the event rather than the event itself (see, for example, Khoroshilova, Abdullaeva, Kopchevskaia). It is such a studied, concerted effort that one cannot help wondering who was the inspiration behind this minimalist approach. The Dardenne Brothers? Bruno Dumont? Aleksandr Sokurov? The answer may come two thirds into the movie. The son watches TV. What he is watching is apparently important for our understanding of the story and the style. It is The American Soldier, a 1970 film by Rainer Werner Fassbinder. The significance is driven home when the return of the hero is announced in the film, “Er ist da!” (He is here).
It is time to stop and contemplate The American Soldier for a moment. One of Fassbinder’s early efforts, it has as its protagonist an expatriate German contract killer who has spent some years in America and even fought in the Vietnam war. Upon return to his native Munich, he sports sharp “American gangster” clothes, drives fast cars, swigs Ballantine’s whiskey, seduces women, and delivers “hits” until, betrayed by his own incestuous and homosexual brother, he dies in a shootout with the police. At first sight, there is nothing much in common with our hero. Fassbinder’s film was, after all, inspired by the American film noir and early Godard. It is a cinematic fantasy to begin with, containing nothing authentic. Why would anyone think of grafting it on present-day Russia? ...
Reviewed by Sergey Dobrynin in KinoKultura