An Attack On the Heart
9. 7. 2009 / Ema Čulík
If you say a film is boring, it doesn't make you sound good. In a film review you can't say just, "It's boring", as it just makes it seem like you have no attention span, or you're ignorant. Watching all these films I'm aware of the issue of entertainment vs intellectual value. If a film has deep meaning, can it also be entertaining? And can a film made primarily for entertainment be interesting, and appeal to our minds and souls, as opposed to only our short attention span?
Vassily Sigarev 's film Volchok / Wolfy (2009) was a really good film... for my brain. My heart disagreed. The heart, being the centre of emotion, can't take such wallopings as are doled out by this film. There aren't really any particularly shocking scenes, apart from maybe a woman pissing on the floor. But nevertheless you leave the cinema feeling somewhat tongue-tied. And not in a good way. You feel exhausted by misery.
A Czech version of this article is HERE
The film is about a mother and a daughter. The girl was born while her mother was being arrested, and then didn't see her until she was seven years old. The birth of her child was nothing but a pest for the mother, who is utterly selfish and frustrated that her life is not more successful, exciting, and happy. She goes out chasing after men, and the only time she comes home is with them. Sometimes she pops by for brief and perfunctory visits. Her favourite question for the girl is "What do you want from me?" And all she does is terrorize the poor child, emotionally and physically, despite the girl's unwavering and loyal love for her.
An the problem is that, despite the fact that she does feel such profound love for her mother and hence is unselfish, she has inherited the same crude and violent manner from her horrific mother. She smashes a large glass jar on the head of a violent suitor, and smothers the poor pet hedgehog that her mother brought her as a consolation prize.
After the death of her own mother, following a long and very alcoholic mourning period, the nightmare mother decides to sell her house and move south. She abandons the girl at the station, then does not reappear again for about a decade. Finally, on her return, the daughter ends up being hit by a car while chasing after her mother, who has gone out to buy more vodka, afraid that she might go missing again.
The horrific story, though, is told beautifully, laconically and poetically. It all lies in the symbol of the "volchok" - a spinning top that the mother gives her poor child on their first meeting. This trifling little toy has enormous emotional significance for the girl, as it represents some attention and love, and seemed to give hope on their first meeting that the mother would give her these things throughout their life together. The magnified sound of the top spinning on the wooden floor echoes through the whole film, as this memory and this hope, hope, hope hang over the girl's life. Similarly, the sound of the girl's feet pounding on the ground as she runs after the car that is driving her mother away to another strange man's house echo throughout the film, as the mother does not change her behaviour, nothing changes, the same betrayal is committed again and again.
All the cinematic techniques work extremely well to put across the feeling of the film, the characters' tragedy. The characters are realistic (unfortunately) and believable (which makes the whole thing all the more tragic). Sigarev does not neglect the mother, and shows why she is behaving this way -- why Do parents hate children? Not for the simple fact that they are children: it's that this woman had wanted to reach something more. She lives in an empty backwater of a place and is trying to make her way out of it (albeit, not a terribly moral or prudent way), and this child is just a hindrance to her. And she knows that she would be no good at it.
The cinematography of the film is beautiful. Light is used against the cold background to emphasise both the solitude and the oppressive presence of family. When the mother is telling her poor daughter a horrible lie about her birth -- that she was in fact found, with fur all over her body, in a plastic bag, at the cemetery -- the camera slowly, slowly, moves away from them, like they are stranded in a sea of loneliness together. All they have is each other and yet they do nothing but cause each other pain.
As I was sitting watching this film I could appreciate all the beautiful shots, I felt the horror and pain that I was supposed to. But as a body goes numb when it is being beaten, so did my heart. He is too true, too terrible, and I think at one point I subconsciously stood back.
And my brain appreciated it. But my heart...
It saddens me to say that this film seems to hark back to that old stereotype of dark Russia. Living in Russia, I have to say that I don't find it oppressively dark, though you do have to have a sense of humour to live there. Perhaps you have to have a sense of humour to make films about it, too. At least ones that appeal to international audiences. This film makes you wonder -- could such a picture be made in the Czech Republic, which is generally middle-class, and temperate? I can hardly imagine it. And Britain? It probably could exist. I'm reminded of the drastic film about madness, Poppy Shakespeare (2008), which was shown on British Channel 4, and also at last year's KVIFF. And it, like other drastic British films, has a very tangible social element to it. And if Volchok had been made in Britain, the poor family would have been descended upon by a flock of social workers. I have to admit that while I was watching the film, this did occur to me:Where are social services?
So Vassily Sigarev has made a skilfully directed, devastatingly beautiful film, which is just devastating. It is so well made, but, though it may speak really well to Russians, it can't speak to humanity. And when your heart turns off, the film can seem at times... almost a little bit boring.
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