"The Daughter"

in 16th Black Nights Film Festival

by Martin Oja

“The Daughter” is the second feature film of Alexander Kasatkin and the directorial debut of Natalya Nazarova, a directing and scriptwriting duo from Moscow. The narrative follows the format of the classical and somewhat overexploited genre of criminal drama / murder mystery, which could be a real challenge for filmmakers who desire to achieve freshness and originality. A small provincial town in Russia is the setting of a series of murders of teenage schoolgirls. The girls are waylaid in solitary places, killed and then abandoned almost under the nose of local investigators, whose slow-paced and booze-ridden practices are no match for this kind of sinister activities. The writing on the wall of the police station literally works as a witty commentary on the rigidity of this Russian institution: its old, totalitarian name Militia is been changed to the democratic-sounding Politia by having only its first two letters sloppily painted over and then overwritten. What this seems to suggest is that under the glaze of cosmetic changes, the traits of conservative, backward and even archaic ways could always be found in Russia.

We are also introduced to the family of the teenage girl Inna (Maria Smolnikova), her kid brother and their hard-working dad, whose silence and seriousness seem to contain his fear and concern about his children. The father’s communication with his daughter is overshadowed by his obsessive idea of purity. As the girl befriends her new schoolmate Masha, tensions within the family grow. Masha is the opposite of the shy Inna: she smokes, parties and dresses like an easy-going city girl, bringing to Inna’s life something definitely new and exciting. The girls’ need for each other is manifested first in shared secrets and then in evolving affection, in the ever-sincere and soulful Russian manner. Inna’s sexual initiation begins with a porn magazine Masha lends her, followed by the first sips of alcohol she offers her, and a visit to a nightclub. The guardian figure of father however is never too far and, after promptly discovering his daughter’s new interests and the danger Masha poses, he sets out to correct things by new rules and actions.

Then religion comes into play. The local priest, who has recently lost his daughter to the serial killer, witnesses his teenage son falling in love with both Masha and Inna – a kind of platonic love triangle. But much worse is to come: one day an anonymous man comes for confession and self-identifies as the maniac serial killer. The priest thus faces an horrible dilemma: his faith demands that he guards the sanctity of confession, while the loss of his daughter requires that he talks to the authorities in order to prevent future crimes. From that moment on, the well-paced narrative and sensitive camera take the plot to an even gloomier and tragic revelations about the dark secrets of a small and closed community. It shows the blind wrath and derision, which invariably engender new scapegoats, transposing them, semiotically speaking, from ‘our’ space to the space of  ‘strangers.’

“The Daughter”, superbly written, directed and acted, successfully immerses its crime mystery in realism, thus revealing fundamental problems of human existence: the vicious circle of sin and salvation, the loss of love, the tensions between children and parents. In that sense, it follows the tradition of psychological profundity, typical of Russian classic literature, with its humanism, sensitivity and faith. It´s not an easy film to watch as the more you delve into it, the more it is likely to entangle you in its painful drama. Yet this is what real art is all about – the kind of art that is becoming increasingly hard to find in the prevailing commercial cinema with its ever-repeating ready-to-wear stories.

Edited by Christina Stojanova