Living (Zhit)

Russia (2012) Dir. Vasili Sigarev

In three separate tales sharing a common theme, a young boy Artyom (Alexei Pustovoitov) enjoys staring out of the window at the world outside, much to the frustration of his abusive mother (Anna Ukolova) and her latest boyfriend Igor. Meanwhile HIV-positive Anton (Alexei Filimonov) marries his girlfriend Grishka (Yana Troyanova) but on the train home Anton is beaten to death by a group of thugs. Finally recovering alcoholic and single mother Galya (Olga Lapshina) has turned her life around and is awaiting a visit from her two daughters from their foster care home, only to learn they are killed when the bus crashes.

Contrary to the title this film is about death and the effects it has on those left behind when their loved ones are taken from them. It is bleak, uncompromising and as far from movie entertainment as you can get; yet it is one of the most engrossing and poignant films released this year, exploring not just the fragile psyches of the bereaved but also serves as a damning snapshot of modern Russian for those at the bottom of the ladder, supported by some stunningly potent and captivating performances.

Former playwright Vasili Sigarev made his film making debut with 2009’s Wolfy which earned the ire of some prominent Russian figures, presumably upset at the bleak picture it pained of their country. Living will probably drive them to conniption. Of the three tales presented here, Grishka and Galya’s could easily have been standalone films in their own right, such is the power and potential depth of the premises. Only Artyom’s thread is the least successful seemingly having little in common with the other two until the end. Again the potential is there for a standalone film but in this context it remains the least fulfilling although sympathy for the little chap isn’t difficult to muster with such an unpleasant mother to live with.

Starring Sigarev’s wife Yana Troyanova, the tale of Grishka and Anton is the most visually horrific of the three despite the pivotal act of violence happening off screen, entering into gothic horror territory as we witness the delusional breakdown of Grishka following Anton’s death. With her thick blonde dreadlocks, piercings and esoteric fashion sense, Grishka makes for an unconventional looking protagonist and while Anton’s appearance is closer to convention, the relationship bond is undeniably genuine and secure. The film follows them on their marriage in a small church in a ceremony that will seem unusual to us in the west (they put the rings on the right hand and not the left). The fateful train journey back home sees Grishka witnessing her husband’s fatal beating at the hands of a group of thugs with no-one doing a thing to help.

As unsettling as the fallout is for Grishka – an awesome essaying by Troyanova whose acute depiction of the mental unravelling in one scene is as eerie as it is heartbreaking – we see the unpleasant side of Russian authorities as the police sent to the hospital to investigate the incident clearly couldn’t give two hoots and is more interested in exploring the alcohol on Grishka’s breath than the murder of Anton. Equally uncaring is the social worker inspecting Gayla’s house who ignores the earnest effort the reformed drunkard had made to improve herself after having her daughters taken away, peering down her nose at Gayla with contempt. She openly taunts Gayla’s dog and would rather watch the TV instead of conversing with the poor, on edge mother. Sadly the girls fail to make it home alive which triggers Gayla’s descent into denial and a potential return to the bottle. What happens next is a heart rendering and acutely depicted downward spiral into a reality clashing world triggered by a breakdown at the girl’s funeral that you just know isn’t going to end well.

Much like Troyanova, Olga Lapshina throws herself body and soul into her performance as Gayla, transforming her from a nervous mother looking for that one chance at redemption to a paranoid, delusional demon trying to restore normality in her life as she sees it. The key to the characters Sigarev presents us with is that they are regular people with regular problems thus are instantly relatable despite the location of the film’s setting. They are also instantly sympathetic even without the added drama that rocks their lives which merely draws the viewer into their world of pain and suffering. Unlike the rest of the cast we are naturally privy to observing these painful scenarios unfurl from the perspective of the emotionally addled woman, teasing us with our own questions as to what is real and what is the product of their delusions.

It may be teasing us with a ghost story but there is nothing to suggest that what we are seeing isn’t real. Despite being the least developed story of the trio, Artyom’s arc is the one that blurs the lines of reality and the afterlife the most, defying he convention that it is not just children who have vivid imaginations. Sigarev‘s choice of title might seem misleading but the message is to urge to celebrate the life of the dead by carrying on living. Perhaps it is an extreme way to do this but Sigarev also does it in a poetic and intimate manner that one cannot fail to be touched by what unfolds onscreen.

Living is a passionate and thought provoking film that is heavy on the morose and darker side of life which will make it a chore to sit through for mainstream audiences and perhaps the sheer honesty and upfront approach to the subject may also be too close to comfort for those whose experiences with mortality have been equally unpleasant. If you like your cinema confrontational, thoughtful and genuinely heartfelt then a powerful treat awaits you. Unashamedly arthouse but unquestionably brilliant. A true experience.