Closeness: A Masterful Debut

in 70th Cannes International Film Festival

by Eva Peydró

Closeness (Tesnota) is an outstanding film, especially considering this director is a young man of only 25, and this is his first feature following three previous shorts. There is no doubt that Kantemir Balagov is a disciple of Alexander Sokourov (the Nalchik Film School director), and a good one indeed; his debut confirms his promise.

Balagov shows a refined instinct when he chooses the topic, period and place where Closeness develops. Making a first film, one of the most important things that proves cleverness and good sense is to pick a story you know well, a context where you feel at ease and passionate about, especially, when you are a part of it. On the other hand, nothing is more dangerous than to reflect only on your own concerns, despite attracting (or not) your audiences. That was exactly the risk, but Balagov’s extraordinary talent transforms the possible of failing into a stunning achievement.

Closeness is set in 1998, in the city of Nalchik (where the director was born in 1991), capital of the Kabardino-Balkaria Russian republic. Using a sorrowful true event as starting point, the film depicts a conflict provoked by a criminal act, whose consequences are determined by the particular circumstances in which it happens.

Confinement is the key word in Closeness, revealed in the plot and also by means of the settings: the garage pit, the crowded dining table, car interiors, the tiny room in the gas station, night shots… as well as the choice of 1.33 frame and the lightning techniques.

Twenty-four- year-old Ilana (Darya Zhovner) is the leading character of Closeness. She is a tomboy who works as a car mechanic in the family garage with her father, a pushover. The opening scene is a meaningful, off-camera shot where Ilana is found at work, before going back home to celebrate her brother’s engagement. Darya Zhovner’s debut in cinema is brilliant. She is perfect at showing her character’s loves, struggle and strong personality and, at the same time, and sacrifice she makes. The mindful character development is clear and her performance seamless until the impressive final scenes.

The opening of the film offers enough information to figure out what the main conflict will be in the film: Ilana is a determined girl, she doesn’t share interests or traditions with her family, nor with the traditional Jewish community to which the neighbors are so attached to; even so, her behavior is always respectful and dutiful. History, tribal ancestry, timeless fights and survival strategies are the overwhelming influences that she struggles with. Ilana is a good girl. She loves her family and at the same time wants to act by herself, to pursue her own way of life and future, to be free to love her chosen man despite of social or religious taboos.

Balagov depicts Ilana’s personality, showing her at the peak of happiness when she meets her boyfriend and his pals in the tiny room of the gas station where he works. They gather in front of the TV set, playing, drinking, unconcerned about the surroundings, trying to evade responsibility, choices and the heavy weight of being alive in Nalchik’s narrowness. Nevertheless, they don’t drive back when confronted by disturbing documentary images on videotape, depicting atrocious war crimes in Chechnya, because the reality is ineluctably crushing before their eyes.

After the engagement party, Ilana’s brother David is kidnapped with his fiancée. There is no question of calling the police; the Jewish community is used to solving problems in their own way. Nevertheless, the fund-raising proposed by the rabbi to pay a ransom fails and the family is obliged to sell everything, even the garage. But that sacrifice is not enough to get the money they need.

Ilana’s pain grows when the solution to the conflict falls to her. If she accepts to marry a young neighbor, whose family will pay the rest of the ransom sum in exchange, her brother will be back. Sheathed in dungarees, determined, a lone fighter, she could fit perfectly in a Dardenne brothers’ film as she confronts impossible situations: a difficult mother- daughter relationship, gender discrimination, an ambiguous fraternal love, the consequences of war and tribal conflicts. Ultimately, her freedom of choice is at stake in this masterful film.

Edited by Alissa Simon