Director: Alena Davydova
Cast: Kirill Polukhin, Polina Gukhman, Anastasiia Mel’nikova, Liudmila Boiarinova, Sergei Iatseniuk,
In her desire to make “an ordinary film about ordinary people” (Manzhula 2016) Alena Davydova, born in a small town in Chuvashia, brings a fresh perspective to the Moscow-centric Russian film industry. Her full-length feature debut Ivan came out at the St Petersburg Sever Film Company, the successor of the famous Studio for the First and Experimental Film (PiEF) founded in 1989 by Aleksei Iu. German and Svetlana Karmalita to nurture emerging talent. The studio selected Davydova’s project for support in 2013 when her script for Ivan received the main prize for “best contemporary story” at the eighth national competition of family-oriented scripts “Faith. Hope. Love.” The film premiered at Kinotavr, the Open Russian Film Festival, in 2016. A rather straightforward drama about a day in the life of two ordinary people in a humble provincial town, Ivan stands out among the more usual fare of flashy commercial productions or complex art house features. This emphatic simplicity has won over the hearts of many Russian bloggers, but it also runs the risk of making the story too obvious and banal for the more sophisticated viewer looking for deeper social and psychological analyses. Despite her “quiet scrutiny” of her ordinary characters that is “devoid of both special effects and speculation on viewers’ emotions,” Davydova is not a new Vasilii Shukshin, as one film critic at the Kinotavr press conference suggested (Uminova 2016). Nor is she a new Larisa Sadilova, another prominent filmmaker from Russia’s provinces whose dedication to provincial Russia is paired with rigorous social critique. That said, Davydova’s compelling casting, convincing dialogue, and semi-detective plot in Ivan will keep many viewers engaged throughout the feature.
The film tells a story of the middle-aged ambulance driver, Ivan, who lives alone in his run-down apartment. One day, when taking out the trash, Ivan bumps into a nine-year-old girl, Tonia, who says she came from a nearby town to visit her grandmother. Tonia unceremoniously asks Ivan for food and shelter because her grandmother is gone and she cannot get in touch with her. Ivan unwillingly assumes responsibility for the opinionated girl and her lapdog, and the unlikely trio embarks on an eventful day filled with hopes, disappointments, and revelations. The viewer gradually assembles Ivan’s traumatic life story by observing his interactions with Tonia and other acquaintances as he scrambles to put together a decent outfit to wear to his daughter’s sixteenth birthday. Ivan’s life “has turned upside down” when, after a bad helicopter accident that involved “falling and burning,” the formerly intrepid pilot with a zest for life has acquired a fear of heights and failed to adjust to his new, earth-bound existence. Ivan’s current life drags on as a pale shadow of his past adventures, and both his family and friends have written him off and moved on. Only a few keep urging him to turn his life around by taking up flying again, thereby aggravating his guilt over his seeming inability to overcome his acrophobia. Others, who still care, offer doubtful half-solutions like moving to a better place or simply moving to avoid the depressing status quo. Predictably for a film with a broken adult and a precocious but compassionate child, Tonia is the only person who eventually manages to turn Ivan “right side up.” Parallel to Ivan’s narrative, the viewer puts together pieces of Tonia’s puzzle: a much more intriguing but poorly developed story of a child traveling alone, wandering the streets away from her hometown in search of a lost parent, a “brave and strong pilot.” At some point in the film, Ivan must live up to this idealized vision if he wants to preserve his growing bond with Tonia, his second chance at getting fatherhood, family, and life right.
Kirill Polukhin, one of the leading actors of the Tovstonogov Bolshoi Drama Theater in St Petersburg, plays the title character with a believable balance of natural charisma and low self-esteem: reminded at each step that he is an “eagle” turned “penguin,” Ivan nevertheless projects an innate openness and charm that explain the genuine attachment to him of both Tonia and Irina, a woman who loves him despite (or perhaps because) of his current “unmanly” weakness and lack of ambition. Polukhin’s wider popularity based on television series in which he is routinely typecast as a “charismatic scoundrel” (Bobrova 2016) curiously augments his role in Ivan. The palpable chemistry between the seasoned actor and his nine-year-old acting partner, Polina Gukhman, results in compelling acting and dialogue that, in the words of kinoteatr.ru reviewers, make for an “organic” and “soulful” viewing experience that is accomplished “in one breath” (“Ivan” 2016).
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