Berlinale 2022 review: Brother in Every Inch (Alexander Zolotukhin)

“Despite some narrative shortcomings, this is an idiosyncratic exploration of brotherhood, elevated by the outstanding sensory force of Zolotukhin’s filmmaking.”

Young Russian director Alexander Zolotukhin is a graduate of Aleksandr Sokurov’s famed directing workshop whose notable alumni also include recent Cannes favorites Kantemir Balagov and Kira Kovalenko. This alone should give audiences a pretty good idea of what to expect from Brother in Every Inch, a surprising and visceral deconstruction of the aerial adventure subgenre. Those looking for a high-octane action flick with extensive battle sequences will be severely disappointed, but Zolotukhin offers plenty to appreciate for viewers attuned to the unhurried rhythms of a contemplative drama. After its premiere in the Encounters section of the Berlin Film Festival, this impressively crafted effort should attract attention from adventurous distributors or streaming platforms specializing in bold examples of contemporary world cinema.

Zolotukhin had the rare opportunity to shoot extensively in real military training facilities, but this unusual film is characterized by a refreshing lack of militarism. The protagonists of the film are identical twins Mitya and Andrey, who share a strong bond and remain virtually inseparable throughout. They both train to become military pilots, but neither is interested in operating fighter planes or engaging in battle. Zolotukhin emphasizes their fascination with the mechanics of flying, the beautiful connection they share with each other, and the psychological toll of this demanding training program. Almost the entire film is confined to the school grounds and no external threat is identified. Serving as a pilot in the army carries obvious risks; therefore, the absence of an identifiable enemy does not mean that everything is going smoothly for the brothers. On the contrary, weather conditions, mechanical issues, or even the slightest mistake during flight can suddenly turn into a life-threatening crisis. But Brother in Every Inch refuses to engage in overt politics or create cinematic tension out of ongoing real-life conflicts. This is a particularly brave, distinctive choice on Zolotukhin’s part considering the troubling events unfolding in the border region between Ukraine and Russia. While it would perhaps be difficult to call a film like this “pacifist” (given the fact that almost all the characters are soldiers who spend the entire film in uniform), the lack of military aggression and war discourse is certainly an admirable aspect of Brother in Every Inch.

Arguably the most notable quality of Zolotukhin’s filmmaking is its extraordinary sensuality. The remarkable aerial shots are exhilarating for sure, but many other earthbound sequences are just as invigorating. Zolotukhin’s fascination with the elemental forces of water, fire, and soil comes across in richly textured images. Gorgeous close-ups follow the characters as they bathe, run and exercise. Some of the most memorable scenes in the film take place in vast fields covered in tall reeds, a hangar housing large hills of grain, or even massive clouds that carry the threat of torrential rains. In this regard, an accomplished point of reference for Brother in Every Inch could be Claire Denis’ masterpiece Beau Travail, possibly the most unforgettable cinematic poem about bodies in motion and the seductively unforgiving nature that surrounds them.

In lieu of an obvious conflict or narrative momentum, what holds Brother in Every Inch together is the relationship between the two brothers. Mitya and Andrey are very different from each other; one is a more skilled pilot, the other better understands the theoretical aspects of flying. They complete each other, and more importantly, they need each other to be whole. But this is a paradoxical situation as their chosen profession demands absolute individuality. When flying, dependence on another person becomes a potentially fatal weakness. Mitya passes out mid-flight when he sees that Andrey may be hurt in a crash site on the ground. Andrey repeatedly says he cannot continue his training if Mitya is expelled. Mitya always has the answer to important calculations if Andrey is struggling with the numbers. One brother tells the other that he feels anxious when the other one is not around. Zolotukhin is interested in the complex connection between Mitya and Andrey: there is something moving and beautifully vulnerable in their closeness. But at the same time, this is a case of restrictive dependence, and the brothers need to overcome that in order to become stronger individuals.

For some viewers, this dynamic between the brothers may not be sufficient to sustain the film in the absence of action scenes or more conventional plotting. Since we know so little about Mitya and Andrey apart from their attachment to each other, it can be a challenge to fully understand their motivations or certain choices. Even at a brief 80 minutes, Brother in Every Inch can occasionally feel meandering. But despite some narrative shortcomings, this is an idiosyncratic exploration of brotherhood, elevated by the outstanding sensory force of Zolotukhin’s filmmaking. It will be very interesting to see where this immensely talented filmmaker goes next after such a fascinating effort.