Genre: Drama, Mystery

Directed by: Sergey Loznitsa

Starring: Vasilina MakovtsevaLiya Akhedzhakova, Valeriu Andriutã

First, the story: A Gentle Creature (directed by the Ukrainian polymath Sergei Loznitsa) is the tale of a Russian woman’s time in a prison town in Siberia, following the unexplained return to her of a parcel she had sent to her imprisoned husband. I won’t go into many further details of the plot; it unfolds beautifully, but the real impact of this film is in its mood, its atmosphere.

On the journey to Siberia our unnamed protagonist, played brilliantly by Vasilina Makotseva with a combination of patient stoicism and cautious innocence, shares a compartment with a couple of elderly Stalinist nostalgists, one of whom has a fine operatic singing voice, and with an inarticulate  youth. On arrival at the prison, she fails to get access to her husband, or even to find out whether he’s still in prison there.

From that point, a variety of figures flit in and out of her time there offering assistance with, you suspect, varying degrees of sincerity.  By now, despite fairly minimal dialogue and an appropriately restrained performance on the lead actor’s part, the viewer’s empathy for the character is solidly established. She’s clearly out of her depth, but still radiates enough stubborn self-belief for one to hope that this could have a happy ending – or at least not a horrible one.

The other characters who flit in and out of the story include a pimp, a gangster, a cynical army lieutenant, a young prostitute, a drunken poet, a sincere but disorganised human rights activist, and a local woman with her own agenda, who offers cheap accommodation to transients in the town, most of whom are immersed in an alcoholic soup of nihilistic nostalgia, violence and misogyny. That list looks like practically every cliche of contemporary Russian life on the edge, but the entire cast rises above the level of caricature to present believable victims of, and perpetrators of, cynicism and occasional cruelty.As for the mood of the film, it has a dreamy – or rather nightmarish – feel to it. The prison town is a purgatory, and the people our gentle creature meets there are souls lost physically in a backwater on the edge of nowhere, and morally in a swamp where any power over others is exercised with arbitrary, lazy, cruelty. The characters are victims of circumstance; comfort can only be glimpsed in an inaccessible past, and that closed door between past and present looms over the story.   

Loznitsa’s first film, My Joy (2010), was described by Manohla Dargis of The New York Times as being “… consistently moving… filled with images of a Russia haunted both by ghosts and the living dead”, and A Gentle Creature is entirely consistent with that description too.

In short, this film should be on your must see list. It should – and will – in time be seen as one of the finest Eastern European films of the last few years. Impeccably acted, beautifully paced and shot, it’s worth the attention of anyone with an interest in what cinema can do. But a word of warning: there’s a pretty harrowing scene of sexual violence towards the end of the film. Be prepared for that.  

★★★★★

A Gentle Creature is released in UK cinemas 13 April

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