Sergei Loznitsa first came to prominence with 2012’s In the Fog, a powerful drama of guilt and suspicion. His new film A Gentle Creature is loosely based on a Dostoyevsky short story and is redolent with the suffering and heaviness of the great Russian worrier.
Despite a first half of great promise, the film is ultimately ground down by the endless suffering even as it bloats with a bizarre lurch into satirical fantasy. Shot in Latvia but based in Russia, the gentle creature of the title is a prisoner’s wife (Vasikina Makovtseva) who lives with her dog in the remote countryside. The first shot of her coming home from is gorgeous, with evening golden behind her. However, the dark is already over the land. She receives a package from her husband which has been returned to sender. From her first interactions in the post office to her ride back on the bus, we are given a view of Russia of bitter angry people oppressed by bureaucracy – “The insolence of office” as Hamlet puts it – and yet at the same time complicit in their own oppression by their docility and at times their viciousness.
Going on a pilgrimage to the Siberian prison to seek answers, our nameless heroine meets a variety of people from all strata of Russian society but who all reflect on Russia and its present state. From the drunks on the train singing patriotic songs about Stalin to the corrupt police who watch with amusement as a man is beaten up, there’s nary a good apple in this barrel. The taxi driver sings a paean of praise to the prison and the economic benefits that it brings to the town and the image of Russia as a prison is explicitly repeated. Stonewalled at the prison and sent away, the wife is helped by a villager who it turns out runs a brothel. Here she sits in her fusty clothing and tied up hair in the midst of drunken ribaldry, feral children and an imminent orgy. Another man who offers to help via a local gangster is obviously a pimp.
This is painted with increasingly obvious broad strokes and the rage and nihilism which Loznitsa obviously feels might well be justified, but it seems to cloud his vision. There is very little of humanity here. The only place that has some sort of resistance and goodness attached to it is the office of human rights organisation. But this is an isolated instance, harassed by the police, bullied and beaten up by the locals, they are seen as fascists and outsiders.
Undermining Loznitsa’s critique is the gentle creature’s own passivity. She makes endless stupid decisions, allowing herself to be moved from pillar to post without a murmur. With a striking glare and a passing resemblance to Jeanne Moreau, Makovtseva is an enigmatic presence but as A Gentle Creature progresses and her passivity begins to appear closer to dumbness being able to empathise with her becomes increasingly difficult.
A prolonged dream sequence signals a final surrender to telling a real story and everything takes on kind of parable-like status where the woman is supposed to represent Russia and each character a particular vice. The violent rape which concludes this is the kind of agitprop that might have flown in the 1960s, but here it’s used offensively as part of a symbolic spectacle. But even this symbolism isn’t marred paradoxically by both obviousness and incoherence.