Corners and Dead Angles

in 24th goEast IFF Wiesbaden

by Catalin Olaru

The world seems to end very near the boundaries that delineate two neighbouring houses in Dmitrii Davydov’s Sakha-made film The Plague that won the FIPRESCI prize for Best Film at the goEast Film Festival in Wiesbaden. Except the two yards, there are only a handful of exteriors that Danila Stepanov’s camera lingers on: the body of water where the protagonist’s boat is used, a forest that’s just ripe for illegal logging, and finally the same body of water, shot upstream or downstream.

Davydov, who is both director and scriptwriter of the movie, depicts a self-sufficient universe. We can imagine there’s life outside the tight perimeter captured on screen. All the other characters, however obscure their motives, their livelihoods or their day-to-day lives, come from somewhere outside, and it makes all the sense in the world that they return somewhere too, once they have fulfilled their obligations at the riverbed or at one of the two houses. But this outside world only exists if it elicits some form of reaction from either the two neighbours, Ivan and Vlad.

Filmed as a long take, the first scene is a tour de force that brings to mind Andrei Tarkovsky, Orson Welles, and something more, something that is still unfathomable. A character washes his face in a river. The camera follows him, then concentrates on another character, who carefully watches something off screen (we don’t know what yet), and who is surely someone of importance, for only he allows himself the luxury of motionlessness. Most striking, indeed, is how he is the only one with his hands in his pockets. Everyone else does something with their hands, even if that something is an action as trifle as trying to maintain their balance on the shaky ground of the muddy riverbed. Unlike him, in the distance, to his left, three men play around in the water, while to his right, another four men fold a fishing net or carry some large, apparently full, containers. Further signs of his privileges come with the fact that he is the only one wearing a hat, no less than a felt hat with a braided thread as decoration, while everyone else just wears a regular cap: a strictly utilitarian piece of garment.

The camera then settles behind the character who has washed his eyes and the one with his hands in their pockets, borrowing their perspective, so we finally find out what the latter was looking at: a stout man pulls a boat, in which a fourth man is sitting. The stout man lets go of the rope before the boat hits the shore, takes something that we later come to realise is a couple of bills from an offroad vehicle (left unlocked, a sure sign no one would dare to go anywhere near its trunk without an inviting sign), then replaces the man with the hat in the shot. After passing an order to the men playing in the river (who obey at once), he pays the man in the boat a sum that is one third smaller than what was initially agreed. The man in the boat tries to negotiate, but to no avail: the stout man just looks at him, until he agrees.

The scene lasts for about four minutes, but tells us all we need to know in order to navigate the murky narrative waters of the film with at least some level of ease. The most striking fact: Davydov’s universe is all-male. No female character is shown on screen, neither in this introductory scene nor for the rest of the movie. Moving on: the protagonist may dwell on the hope that he can extract himself from the picture by being a mere contractor, but the social pyramid is positively medieval: there are masters and servants, yet no other caste to speak of. When he feels he has been wronged, Ivan resists, but he does so with maximum caution. Because his opposition is feeble, he is defeated without his adversaries having to put their heart into it. In Davydov’s film, facts are always one step behind fists.

The filmmaker from Yakutsk delivers rich depth of field not just in this first scene, but throughout the movie too. After the first conversation between the protagonist and his son, the camera moves to show both the two men, and the houses they live in: a reverse establishing shot, if you will. Yet another example: in a scene where there is a fire in Ivan’s yard, we see the object in flames only after the protagonist runs the entire distance from the bed where he had been sleeping to the object, which he tries to salvage in vain. It is only in this particular moment that some bystanders or accomplices also appear in the shot, behind the rising flames, along with the arsonist himself.

Silently frowned upon by his son (Taras), who helps him half-heartedly and answers his questions in idle tongue, Ivan delays the confrontation until it becomes inevitable. His neighbour tests his limits, making sure he will be met with minimum resistance, and then takes charge. First, a series of neutral ground quarrels, ignited by an access road that links the two houses. Then, an attack on his physical/material territory (the boat, the only way Ivan can make a living, which is set on fire), and his interior territory too (the de facto adoption of Taras).

Shortly after his mother’s death, Taras longs for a powerful paternal figure, and becomes close to Vlad. Revenge, which viewers might feel is a must, is a paradigm alien to the rules of the world Davydov created (which in turn must surely rely on at least some degree of factual reality), therefore fails to materialise. On the other hand, Vlad’s appetite for bullying, shown in full mostly in relationship with his own son, is tamed by the ever-surprising mix of audacity and compliance that Taras displays.

Beyond the bony masculinity of the members of this rectangle, Plague never fails to entertain. Every shot is indeed imbued with testosterone, but fears and vulnerabilities too, the shine of their blunter sides, always on sight, along with the moist, soft, more dangerous mud of that which they want to hide.

Catalin Olaru
Edited by Birgit Beumers