The End of the Road Klaus Eder reviews "Once Upon a Time in the Provinces"

in 30th Moscow International Film Festival

by Klaus Eder

A small city, probably somewhere in Siberia; Katya Shagalova doesn’t specify the precise location. Though it’s set in the fictitious town of Ulyotovo, Once Upon a Time in the Provinces (Odnazhdi vi Provincii) was shot in the city of Podolsk, near Moscow.

This is “the provinces”, as mentioned both in the Russian and English titles. It’s a dirty place; if it rains, you’d better stay at home, rather than sinking into the muddy streets. There’s not much entertainment to be had, either for the kids or the workers (or for the men without work; unemployment is a concern in the village). And there’s not much hope to escape to a better place, the way Moscow represented a shining light on the horizon in the village films of the Soviet era.

This is the end of the world. One of the advantages of Katya Shagalova’s second film is indeed this atmosphere of an endless tristesse, as in Chekhov’s plays, but painted in a realistic manner and without any touch of melancholy; even the most Chekhovian character, Nastya (Yulia Peresild), a TV actress coming from the city to the village to stay with her sister, isn’t depicted in a romantic way, but strictly as a failed, broken-down person whose career has abruptly ended, and who harbors no illusions about it. This pitiless view reminds us of the early ’70s novels and films of Vasili Shukshin, the unfortunately forgotten writer, filmmaker and poet of Russian village life.

There’s still another “realistic” approach. As in France, the UK or Germany, Russia has a considerable immigrant population, from the former Asian republics of the USSR and other Asian countries. You may not see this in Moscow, but you see it in Shagalova’s Ulyotovo: Immigrants constitute a considerable percentage of the population, those Russians who could afford to leave having done so long ago. This may not be the first time that recent Russian cinema has addressed the social issue of immigration, but it’s a noticeable element in the film.

There’s not much of a story. There’s not much in the way of “action” going on in the dull provincial nest. The youngsters gather every evening in a yard, just to knock around. There are, however, various story threads developed around the film’s main characters. Vera (Elvira Bolgova), sister of the TV star Nastya, is married to Kolya (the impressive Alexander Golubev), a young war veteran who has returned home convinced he’s sustained a head injury. When Kolya is drunk — which is most of the time — he loses control, beats his wife, cheats on her with a policewoman (Lyubov Tolkalina) whose drunkard daughter, at 17, is already a mother, the child’s father being unknown.

This is how Shagalova narrates her stories: jumping from one character to another, from one story to another, her attention flying back and forth as though she was watching a snowball fight. It’s obvious that much of this narrative quality of portraying sharp and concise mini-episodes is already in the script, written by Shagalova herself; the editing helps this dramaturgy.

Wherever she turns her eye and her camera, Shagalova bumps into disasters and dirty lives full of disappointment and despair. Don’t ask about the future of the policewoman’s daughter: in a few years, she’ll drink herself to death. Or about Nastya, the girl from the city. She falls in love with an immigrant called “Che” — he’s probably from Cuba — but towards the end, we see Che behaving as badly and brutally as Kolya, implying that Nastya may end up just like her sister, Vera, a lethargic casualty in a world ruled by men and vodka.

You may come from whatever part of the world, you may be a good person or a bad person, says the film; it doesn’t matter, because you’ll inevitably be sucked into this moral morass. This is Shagalova’s bitter message. It’s what she’s discovered, even if it may not be her opinion. She is, however, honest enough not to introduce any hope or optimism in this remote place, where hope and optimism cannot exist.

There’s one wrong note, however: The film’s ending involving the death of Nastya and the police investigation that follows. It’s an unnecessary dramatic turn, an intensification the film doesn’t need. Its portrayal of everyday village life is intense enough.

The film was not much liked at its Moscow premiere. It was seen as too dark, too pessimistic; Russians obviously prefer a more upbeat depiction of their country. This should not prevent Katya Shagalova to continue following her own vision. In all the uncertainty of contemporary Russian cinema, Shagalova turns out to be a real auteur.