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Related Reading: Russian Critics on th Cinema of Glasnost edited by Michael Brashinsky and Andrew Horton.


Krug vtoroj, 1990
[The Second Circle]

Aleksandrov A solitary figure trudges through the inclement weather of a vast, remote Siberian wilderness. An unyielding gust of wind brings the young man (Pyotr Aleksandrov) to his knees as he attempts to avert the caustic, sustained force of the snowstorm, momentarily obscuring him from view, erased from the harsh and desolate landscape. The stark, monochromatic image of the film then cuts to an ironically appropriate impersonal and nondescript official title sequence, as the premature sound of a knock on a door seemingly intrudes on the necessity to present information on the film's certification. It is a subtle reminder of life's evolving process: the intrusive nature and unexpected inevitability of death. The film reopens to a jarring, oddly lit image of the gaunt young man standing by the foot of his father's bed in a cramped and squalid apartment. The dispatched medical technicians dispassionately confirm his father's death from natural causes, but explain that they cannot issue a death certificate, pragmatically remarking "You should have placed him in a hospital. Everything would have been easier then." Left alone in the apartment, the son compassionately observes his father's inanimate countenance before preparing his father's body for burial: selecting his best suit, bathing him in the snow in the absence of running water in the apartment, transporting his father's body to the outpatient clinic for a death certificate examination. Without knowing the actual cause of death, the doctor suggests a beaurocratically expedient determination of cancer, rationalizing that "now everything is considered cancer." Having been issued a death certificate, the son then meets with the undertaker (Nadezhda Rodnova), an abrasive and insensitive businesswoman who is quick to assess the family's limited means and treats the overwhelmed young man with disrespect and open hostility, especially as the financially strapped son begins to question some ancillary costs included in the itemized funeral bill. As the dutiful son continues to encounter emotional isolation, antipathy, and an impersonal commodification of the burial process, can he restore the sanctity of the ritual and retain the dignity of his beloved father's memory?

Aleksandr Sokurov creates a haunting, austere, and emotionally honest examination of death, bereavement, and loneliness in The Second Circle. The title of the film refers to the second circle of hell depicted in The Divine Comedy, Volume I: Inferno by Dante Alighieri, the realm of damnation where the souls (of the lustful) are punished by the eternal lashing of a raging, infernal storm (note the referential parallel imagery of the opening blizzard scene). Using high contrast, raw, monochromatic imagery, and spare, but deliberate use of close-up shots, Sokurov reflects the soul's innate longing for compassion, human decency, and spiritual communion in an increasingly amoral, apathetic, and materialistic society: the atypical rapid intercutting of medium and long shots as the son washes his father's body in the snow; the innocent reassurance of the doctor's young son, Seyozha, who attempts to comfort him by saying "everything's going to be all right"; the chaotic and near violent bus ride that results in theft; the extended shot of the son's long, melancholic gaze after opening his father's eyes for a final glimpse. In the end, the doctor's parting words, "the most terrible thing has been left behind" echoes the resigned sentiment of the epilogue verse "Lucky are the nearest and dearest of ours who died before us" - a prophetic observation of the painful and isolating process of grief, longing, and survival.

© Acquarello 2002. All rights reserved.

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Mat i syn, 1997
[Mother and Son]

Anashinov/GeyerMother and Son opens with a languorously sublime image of a man and a woman; their physical forms distorted through an anamorphic lens. A son (Alexei Anashinov) attends to his terminally ill mother (Gudrun Geyer) at a remote house in the Russian countryside. He whispers to her, combs her hair, talks her through an asphyxiating attack. When she wishes to be taken outdoors, he dutifully cradles her in his arms and carries her to the open fields. He takes her to a nearby bench and reads an old postcard to her. He asks about the identity of the author, and her response is vague. He does not probe for more information, but accepts the comfortable silence - perhaps, because he already understands her, and elaboration is moot. After taking a brief nap, he carries her to a wooded area where she can rest against a tree and absorb the beauty of nature. And it is a wondrous sight to behold. The characters linger in the hypnotic, mesmerizing images of the dynamic landscape. After touring the countryside, they return home. She expresses her fear of dying, and he responds that death, like life, has no transcendental meaning. After his mother falls asleep, he ventures into the countryside alone, and grieves under the weight of tragic inevitability.

Beyond the pervasive silence of precise language and profound symbiotic connection lie the ethereal, intoxicating images that populate the spare, atmospheric canvas of Aleksandr Sokurov's Mother and Son. The stark, impressionistic landscape, intensely reminiscent of German Romanticism, echoes the natural scenes of Werner Herzog, and serves as a metaphor for the turmoil of the soul. The turbulent skies swirl, the blades of grass bend with the wind, the leaves rustle, the landscape colors shift and transform. Similar to the films of Ingmar Bergman and Andrei Tarkovsky, minimal dialogue and extended silence pervade the film. In essence, despite the son's consuming attention and sympathetic understanding for his beloved mother, death remains as a personal, and inherently, isolating experience for both the victim and the survivor. On two occasions, a train traverses the landscape from a distance. It is a fleeting glimpse of the world outside their devoted intimacy. It is a reflection of their own journey through the enigmatic terrain of life and death, suffering and loss - first, together, then apart. It is their personal journey.

© Acquarello 2000. All rights reserved.

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