A Little Town, Far Away from Trouble Mike Naafs reviews "Once Upon a Time in the Provinces"

in 30th Moscow International Film Festival

by Mike Naafs

Let’s leave the city behind, that place where everyone says they’re happy but in fact are mostly miserable. Like Nastya in Katya Shagalova’s Once Upon a Time in the Provinces (Odnazhdi vi Provincii). Let’s go to the provinces. To find peace and quiet. As Nastya steps onto the bus, she drops a magazine; her picture is on the cover, accompanied by the quote “I Love My Life!”. In fact, she is miserable. Disappointed about life, and disillusioned about herself:

I can’t deny what I’ve become
I am just emotionally undone.

Nastya goes to visit her sister Vera in a small community in a remote, unnamed Russian town. Vera stands by her man, Kolya. She believes in him, although he often beats her up, gets drunk with his friends all the time and cheats on her. Kolya, like his friends, has nothing to do. In the countryside there’s the usual unemployment, or just one factory; all other work has been lost to the city.

The local community is controlled by a “caretaker”, Sabaka — Russian for “dog” — a crazy drunkard played by Alexei Poluyan, best known as the villain in Alexei Balabanov’s Cargo 200. Sabaka opens the gate for Nastya, and lets her into his world, made up of babies, lost young mothers, white-booted policewomen and a Muslim family that observes these crazy Russians with the same amount of wonder and disbelief as we, the audience.

We watch the circle of friends around the two sisters, Nastya and Vera; we realize that they are all somehow wounded. And in comes the similarly damaged Vera, and slits them all open, exposing every wound.

Of course, blood will flow. It is inevitable; it is these characters’ destiny. But the way Shagalova follows them to their downfall is mesmerizing. Since her debut with Pavlov’s Dog (Sabaka Pavlova) three years ago, about an amour fou in an asylum, she has come a long way. Where the former was a typical first film — full of life, but flawed on the page — with this film, she manages to come into her own.

The portrayal of the characters — especially Vera’s husband, Kolya — is both complex and paradoxical. After Vera’s arrival, Kolya starts to drink more and more, becoming less and less stable. He claims it has something to do with his head — he’s already undergone two operations on his skull. His behavior, which is almost certainly influenced by the fact that he is a war veteran, becomes so unpredictable that at certain moments one wants to scream at the screen: Please, Kolya, stop your drinking!

But of course he doesn’t. What else is there for him to do? (And the same goes for his friends.) There is a moment in the film where Nastya has settled in the community; she’s fallen in love with the appealing Che, and they’re thinking about getting married. All seems well. But then she looks at Che, and for a moment he is somewhere else, his gaze empty, vacant. He blinks his eyes and you can’t help but wonder if Nastya will end up like Vera. Will Che become empty as well? Will their young love end up the same unlovable way?

What else is there to say?

When I’ve tried to find the words
To describe, It sounds so absurd
Try to resist my thoughts
But I can’t lie.

Go see for yourself.