Russia (2009) Dir. Vasili Sigarev
A young pregnant woman (Yana Troyanova) gives birth at the very moment she is arrested for murder. Seven years later she returns from prison where her daughter (Polina Pluchek) now lives with her grandmother. Despite having no clear intentions of playing the dutiful, loving mother, she gives her daughter a small spinning top, her first ever toy, which she takes as a sign of her love. The truth however is vastly different.
The debut film from the director of the hard hitting Living is an equally bleak and devastating outing which offers no answers, no solutions and definitely no happy ending. Vasili Sigarev doesn’t seem to do anything with his films but to remind us that life can deal us some very unfortunate hands and the way some people handle them is not always pretty. In fact, Sigarev doesn’t just remind us of this, he bludgeons us with this fact as though he is suffering and thinks we all should to. However while this may sound like a recommendation to avoid his works and go find something lighter, the irony here is that Sigarev’s films are sublime essays on the darker side of human nature and devastatingly compelling to boot.
All characters are nameless but this isn’t a handicap since there are only four major players. The mother is a deeply unpleasant, walking car crash of a woman who can’t even muster a reaction to the labour pains as he daughter begins her arrival into the world. Returning to her life after seven years and the daughter is an insular and unemotional child who leaps at the first sign of a loving relationship with her mother after she is given the spinning top or volchok – which also means “wolf cub” in Russian. This is significant as later on the mother tells her daughter than she found her in a bag in the cemetery, all covered in fur like a wolf, which she shaved off and kept the cub as her daughter. Quite why she would tell her such a cruel tale isn’t fully explained but it is in keeping with her selfish and vulgar personality.
Amid her declarations that she is still young and wants to live – hence the ignoring of her child – there are hints of self loathing on the mother’s part as she brings a string of abusive lovers home – one wraps his hands in a bandage so “it doesn’t hurt her” – whom she fleeces for cash, which is usually spent on booze. As a consequence the daughter flees to the cemetery where she “befriends” a dead boy with whom she talks, confides in and even builds a shrine made of sweets until the grandmother is taken ill and dies, which the mother blames on the cemetery giving with one hand and taking away with the other.
There is a painful grieving period for the mother but we are never sure if she is missing her own mother or her own unconditional emotional and financial support system. Either way, the daughter is a burden so she does what every inconsiderate mother does and dumps her at a train station, only to end up in a home from which she is rescued by her aunt.
As painful and demoralising as this may all sound, Sigarev manages to deliver a captivating and engrossing film that secures the viewer’s attention with its bold and unflinching approach to its dour subject and naturalistic characters. Even if you don’t know anyone like the mother or daughter personally, we at least know there ARE people out there just like them. Again, Sigarev doesn’t ask questions or seek to provide answers, he simply depicts.
What his aim is isn’t particularly clear; the viewer feels that he is trying to share something with them without fully letting them into his world for a closer look, possibly for our own safety. It is this idea of distance which is the film’s central theme. When in the same space together, mother and daughter are forever in close proximity to one another yet there are emotionally miles apart and even the intermediary presence of the grandmother and aunt offers no common link for that yearning connection.
If the sheer force of the film’s apparent directionless journey doesn’t grab you then the superlative performances of the minimal cast will. Young Polina Pluchek makes a startling powerful and acute debut here (which she has yet to follow up on) that not only towers over turns from her junior peers but puts some adults to shame. She conveys the anger, sadness, loneliness, hope, whimsy and innocence of a young child with remarkable maturity without belying both her age and that of her character. It is both a chilling yet engaging performance.
Equally deserving high praise is Yana Troyanova, Sigarev’s wife. Having seen her tragic, gut wrenching turn in Living, it is hard to imagine that the same actress is the cold, obscene, emotional empty, pitiless mother we see here. It is rare to see someone bare themselves so openly in such diametrically opposed roles and be nothing short of superb in both instances. That, my friends, is acting.
Wolfy is a film that gets under your skin with its overriding despair and grim outlook of life, love and familial bonds yet draws you in through the sheer force of its storytelling and compelling performances. Not for everyone’s tastes but a treat for anyone with enjoys bold world cinema.