Ukrainian director Sergei Loznitsa (My Joy, In the Fog, Maidan) returns to fiction filmmaking with A Gentle Creature: a gloomy, timely tale of a nameless woman trying to track down her incarcerated husband in remote rural Russia.
Since his last fictional work with In the Fog, Loznitsa has directed a slew of documentaries on challenging topics including the Holocaust and Ukraine’s recent revolution. A Gentle Creature maintains this sociopolitical focus, exploring the nature of modern Russia through a woman’s frustrated search for her imprisoned husband. It feels particularly topical and insightful given the deepening crisis in the West’s relationship with Russia.
Though named after a Dostoevsky short story with which it otherwise has little in common, A Gentle Creature more closely resembles another work of modern literature by an equally existential author, Franz Kafka’s The Castle. Just like Kafka’s “K”, the unnamed protagonist in Loznitsa’s film is a woman in search of answers she never gets, in this case about her husband’s whereabouts in the prison town she has travelled hundreds of miles to get to.
As in Kafka’s dark vision of bureaucracy gone mad, she is repeatedly referred to the “appropriate authorities” and told to “file an inquiry” or “come back tomorrow”. Helpful locals or promising leads turn out to be dead ends, such as a much-hyped meeting with a local crime boss who simply recounts an obscure anecdote and then leaves. Indeed, the whole reason she sets off on her journey is her local post office’s refusal to explain why a parcel sent to her husband’s prison has been returned to its sender.
Here is the faceless Soviet state in its full glory. While A Gentle Creature is actually set in contemporary Russia, it’s clear that Loznitsa doesn’t think much has changed. Streets named after Hegel, Marx and Lenin are regularly referenced, while Russians cheer for “heroes” killed in conflicts abroad. The point is made clear by a surreal Politburo-esque banquet in which guards stand to attention in full Soviet attire, as well as a train ride whose passengers break into USSR-era ballads about tank drivers and wartime lovers.
Unsurprisingly for a Ukrainian director who has documented his country’s struggle against Moscow-backed oligarchy, Loznitsa sees Russia as a deeply corrupt and immoral place. There is lots of background chatter in the film – an intentional feature – and all of it seems to be either about gruesome murders, the impending threat of nuclear war, or “savage” snail-eating foreigners.
Prostitutes, gangsters and corrupt cops abound, while at deranged parties guests urinate on each other and strip naked. The protagonist’s impassive reaction to countless setbacks reveals a crushed sense of individuality and agency. Though set in a specific prison town, Loznitsa implies that we should see it as a microcosm of the nation itself.
A Gentle Creature is largely successful at maintaining an atmosphere of suspense and foreboding despite a thin narrative, though it loses control towards the end with an over-the-top surrealist banquet and rape scene that feel gratuitous and at odds with the rest of the film. But that is a minor criticism of what is otherwise a wonderfully strange and thought-provoking cinematic experience.
Maximilian Von Thun | @M3Yoshioka