To Live or Not To Live?

in 12nd goEast Film Festival

by Larissa Leonid Malykova

“To live or not to live” would be a more correct translation of the title of Vasily Sigarev’s film Living (Zhit) that was awarded the FIPRESCI prize in Wiesbaden. It is the second work by the Russian director living in Ekaterinburg. His debut Wolfy (Wolchok) aroused heated discussions in Russian society and harvested a great number of both national and international awards. Living is equally provocative. Everything Wolfy’s author was accused of (exaltation, von Trieresque mode etc.) was taken to the limit in his new production. In this sense the film may be compared with Alexey Balabanov’s Cargo 200 (Gruz 200) that aroused a scandal in professional circles when it came out in 2007.

The film recounts three interrelated stories, each dealing with a loss: a mother looses her daughters in an accident; a young man is killed by a ragtag bunch in front of his bride after the wedding ceremony; a boy struggles with his father’s departure. The three storylines make one whole as a result of the emotionally non-indifferent editing. Whether these stories are consequential or distinct is not so important; what really matters is their incoherent “breath”. There are parallel levels, one of everyday life with routine details, the other metaphysical and phantasmagoric. The everyday mundane life is permeated with threads of insanity. Having lost someone dear one is left all alone with the question of how one should live on. To live or not to live — not everyone is able to find an answer, and the characters are followed by phantoms, reflections of their sick minds. They are not dead, but one can hardly call them alive.

Once again after Wolfy Sigarev turns to tragedy, a genre rarely seen nowadays; once again he explores the philosophy of death. In the film reality turns into a ritual circus — wedding, funeral, funeral feast, living…

The film abounds with details that stick in memory and there’s no “deleting” them even if one wishes to. The most striking scene takes place in a commuter train. The newlyweds are drinking wine and offer a glass to an idle guy, and then a terrible thing happens — the groom is led away by a ragtag bunch and is murdered behind closed doors. His bride yells, begging for mercy, but there’s no one to help, and she runs from carriage to carriage while the train rushes through the tunnel, flashes of light finally fading away. She will have to learn to live in search of the “light at the end of the tunnel”. Cinema, genre cinema in particular, often views death as an indispensable ingredient of the story. In a film one can kill attractively, even elegantly, more than that, killing becomes a simple thing. Sigarev’s message is: murder is an atrocious, ugly and destructive phenomenon. There is no accepting it. It destroys the integral matrix of the world.

The poetics of the film is an unusual mixture of tragedy, drama and parable. Alisher Khamidkhodjaev’s camera catches the stuffy, leaden, atmosphere in the Russian province where living and surviving are far from simple.

The actors deserve a special mention, especially Yana Troyanova as the bride and Olga Lapshina as the inconsolable mother — two very striking characters.

Sigarev’s stories (apart from being a filmmaker he is also a famous playwright whose works have been awarded numerous prizes, among them an Evening Standard Award) are prompted by mundane life, and at the same time they are most unusual and unexpected. In his films the author correlates the depiction of the Russian scene and the hardships of his characters with the universal problems people in this world struggle with. His films do not lack weak points. The mastership of a film director does not always allow him to cope with the multilevel dramaturgical material, but his films don’t leave the viewers indifferent, and they continue a difficult dialogue with the movie-goers long after the final credits…