“Certain persons in the world exist, not as personalities in themselves, but as spots or specks on the personalities of others” — N. V. Gogol, “Dead Souls”
A Gentle Creature is as Russian a creature can ever be. It is the kind of character-driven story where the protagonist is bereft of all possible character — just a wandering collection of characteristics arrayed over a withering wanderer. And what an astounding accomplishment has been for Slavic literature, film and theater, and for the Russian tradition in particular, to create character-driven stories with characters whose drive has been entirely dried out.
Based on Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s homonymous short story, Sergey Loznitsa’s film brings to the screen a fascinating, if sometimes unevenly unpacked, assemblage of the underlying properties that define the best and worst of the Russian tradition, from Pushkin to Gogol to Gorky to Chekhov to Pudovkin to Sokurov. Although very loosely so. It must be noted that perhaps the only feature the film retains faithfully from Dostoyevsky’s story is the title, which captures the spirit of its protagonist’s actions — or lack thereof. And maybe it should also be observed that since Loznitsa was born in Ukraine, the epithet of “Russian” may not sit all that well. Slavic, nonetheless, may not be entirely accurate. So I hope the in-between designation that can accommodate XIX century modernism with XX century socialism and can span all over the former Soviet Empire’s territory is something that is presently evading me and nothing more. With that in mind, let me retain the Russian label as a convention grounded in my ignorance — or limited knowledge, which is the same.
But, coming back to the film, A Gentle Creature follows a nameless woman (Vasilina Makovtseva, “29th Kilometer”) whose gentleness is less the result of virtue than of habit. She embarks on an incrementally odd ordeal after getting back a package from the postal service(?) originally addressed to her imprisoned husband. The reasons why the package has been returned to its sender are just as unknowable as the reasons behind her husband’s imprisonment. With that, she decides to travel to the town where the prison is located to deliver the package herself. What ensues is a series of events that go from the uncanny to the atrocious to the absurd — at points all rolled into one place and character, all caricatures of people, what in authoritarian regimes are usually deemed as realist portraits. And this is where we come back to the Russian character, the kind of character framed into a story that dispossess them of agency while filling them with extraordinary inner strength, which leads us again to the Russian tradition, a tradition that had no other choice but to turn its face onto Socialist realism as its cinematographic genre of choice(?) — the most Chekhovian of political orders.
Makovtseva’s creature embodies this tradition in all her apparent meekness, which profoundly masks the inner turmoil of her grieving self. What we see, after she’s been introduced in all her resigned demeanor, is a long shot that makes her nothing but an expendable part of a bullyingly lulled landscape. She’s surrounded by continuous conversations in the background, around and next to her, all which accentuates her loneliness in a dog eats dog kind of joint; a place where she’s neither dog nor bone nor meat nor shit. And we haven’t even gotten to the prison town where most of the film takes place. Although the town will prove to be even cruder than her home, the whole atmosphere is scented by a smell of nothingness.
While the scent might feel suffocating, the scenery shines in long, long shots that define an embellished visual style. Oleg Mutu’s beautified cinematography constantly contrasts with Makovtseva’s fascinating facial features, the epitome of the inanimate, creating a vivid tension between character and background. Although she never fully integrates in it, she’s persistently put behind as a backdrop figure of an otherwise balanced picture. It is like bucolic realism, or socialist pastoralism — as though Jean Millet were illustrating an Orwellian village.
Though the picture seems often embroidered by a luscious palette during daylight and a graceful chiaroscuro at night, the witnessing eye of the camera remains still with monastic restraint. It is a new look on stoicism. A Gentle Creature shows that even the remotest of places can’t keep away from a political order that makes its omnipresent reach a ubiquitous grip. Politics are everywhere, yet so is the hollow marrow that its system covers, enwrapping it as the tableaux apathique of an order so stringent that it has fallen into stagnation. A stag nation. The stoicism with which the people amble around the film is consistent with the statistic they all have become. A head count. The nameless woman remains fiercely stoic in a country that stands viciously static. Staticist socialism or realist staticism.
The stoic camera thus does not follow its character. Rather, it appears most of the time, as an ethereal eye in which everything is real too real yet where no one feels feelings no more. Take the protagonist’s job, a ghost job, guarding a station at night with a single pump of gas at a spot nobody seems to drive by anymore. Then take her motivation, the specter of a drive stemming from the faint presence of a husband in a memory that responds more to the force of duty than to the call of love, the ghost limb in her action’s limbic system — otherwise known as habit. The woman is hence portrayed as a fly on the wall of her own story.
All these musings may likely describe the frame which shells the film. The first and second acts are exceptional in their self-control, as it never falls to the temptation of colluding with its own sense of the absurd. This is particularly true during the second act, as the woman arrives in the prison town where her husband is presumably kept. Here, the weird mix between bureaucracy and authoritarianism we got to taste in the woman’s home takes chilling dimensions. When the cab driver who takes her to the borders of the prison stops the car at the spot where he will leave her, he can’t resist to voice what might be the town’s perception around the mammoth monument to man-made malady: “It’s our church,” he gasps in admiration. We can see in his eyes an expired revolution desperately gasping over empty oxygen tanks. “A retired solider, a spat bullet, is still a warrior,” he finally pants upon his passenger’s indifference. And there, in that small interaction, the building betrays the true dimensions of its feats as a geriatric home for the revolutionary spirit, for its agonizing soul.
Then we have the third act, with a tonal (atonal) shift that threatens to unwind the exemplary restraint with which the film was being conducted up to that point. The impact and results of this shift, which feels as though Pudovkin were having a Fellinesque mushroom trip, may vary and be subject of debate. It’s difficult to put our finger on where this interminable scene takes the viewer after such hypnotic couple of acts. Yet, misfire or not, the move is as ballsy as the movie all. Whether we like it or not — me being still more on the latter side.
Faithful thus to its tradition, A Gentle Creature cannot avoid but being a political piece by being wholly apolitical. Released on the centenary of the “Revolution,” the film shows what in 100 years it has managed to make: Time to stop. Only by a couple of details do we make the film takes place in the now — as much as it feels atemporal and lost in a loop of oblivious scorn. The nameless, meek woman is the embodiment of the masses, particularly in rural Russia. In a century this revolution turned amazed masses into a massed maze.
With the sudden turns in Europe towards far right doctrines, towards dictators of times past, with a tyrant currently seizing power in Russia and its Western counterpart bufooning his authoritarianism around, Loznitsa’s work is not only timely but very much appreciated. A shame that its viewing, difficult as it is, and slow-paced as it must be, will not secure much of an audience. A shame it is because it perfectly shows the cavities caused by a 100-year decay of civil society — too tired to care and too raped to try. The danger of losing the civil society comes with the pact of selling the collective body to the sneaky suitor of a tougher law. This deal turns public servants into bleak bureaucrats and public service into bland bureaucracy. Politics thus turns into technocracy. Punching clocks in timers. It all plunges public life into civic mediocrity. Here’s a taste of a sheer sense of existence in an amassed reflex towards the meekest form of living: Mere survival.