Regional tribalism, community discord, and plain old youthful angst prove a potent, claustrophobic, and at times explosive mix in Kantemir Balagov’s debut feature Tesnota (aptly translated as Closeness). The film follows a rebellious spirit in the Jewish minority community of Nalchik, the capital of the Kabardino-Balkar Republic. Located in the North Caucasus, this is a volatile region surrounded by hotbeds like Chechnya and South Ossetia, and this boiling-point atmosphere seeps into every image of Tesnota. Shot in Academy ratio, the ‘closeness’ of the characters, whether it be the slightly too familial relationship between the protagonist and her soon-to-be-wed brother, or her at times almost violent relationship with her Kabardian boyfriend, imbues the film with a feeling of oppression and suffocation. The use of color filters by DP Artem Yemelyanov (astonishingly shooting his first film as well), predominantly in washed-out, almost metallic blues and greens, paint a harsh life in an environment where any sign of weakness is a shortcut to punishment, certainly for a woman.
A tomboyish young woman working in her father’s car repair shop, Ilana (a stunning big-screen debut by Darya Zhovner) is everything her parents, and especially her mother, would not like to see in a daughter. She is an outsider in every aspect: she dresses in baggy clothes, is not interested in better job offers, and has a Kabardian boyfriend, Zalim, who is not part of the tightknit Jewish community. She does get along with her brother (perhaps too well, as a near-incestuous scene at the start of the film shows), but he is betrothed to a nice Jewish girl, the opposite of Ilana, and a girl she is clearly jealous of. Before the wedding can take place, however, the brother and his fiancée are kidnapped (personal notes by Balagov on the opening shots mention that this was a common occurrence in the region in the late ’90s). This crisis, combined with Ilana’s explosive nature, makes the frame almost too constrained to contain this borderline self-destructive firebrand, as she battles with forces within the community to make the ransom, only able to turn to Zalim and his friends for a bit of love and respect, though even that relationship is shown to be not entirely healthy.
A mixture of generational conflict, drug abuse, and violent sex unfolds the story of a bleak life for this young woman searching for a place in this world, convinced that that place is not where she is now. By choosing to shoot in such a narrow frame, Balagov intensifies the feeling of claustrophobia, especially when he sets many of the scenes in cramped indoor rooms. Yet even within these narrow confines, the director somehow miraculously finds space to isolate Ilana within the frame, underlining her disconnection from everyone around her. In a remarkable instance, Balagov manages to block a sex scene to within less than one-fifth of the screen width, obscuring most of her boyfriend, yet conveys a transition in the romp from lust to something more animalistic, and then to something bordering on rape, without a single word. It is a stunning scene that establishes the director’s immense visual talent in a single take, running a gamut of emotions without focusing on the actors.
When Balagov finally opens up the frame near the film’s end to let the sunlight and the open spaces of the Caucasus in, it feels almost cathartic both for the viewer and for Ilana. These scenes show how simple and almost idyllic life in the Caucasus can sometimes be, and signal a change in Ilana and her relationship to her mother.
To say Closeness is all Balagov’s triumph though would be too easy a dismissal of Zhovner’s powerful performance. Channeling the frustration, despair, and anger of her powder keg of a character mostly through stares, much less through dialogue, her Ilana is a fully rounded character you care for and admire from the first moment you see her. Fearless and ferocious, humorous and teasing, loving and caring, Zhovner plays her character with her heart on her sleeve.
Besides Ilana’s personal story, the film also touches upon the complexity of ethnic differences and similarities within the region’s majority and minority communities. Ilana is often more at ease with Zalim and his friends, Kabardian Muslims, than with her Jewish family. Tempers may flare between them, but the religious background is never brought into it, while it is emphasized by her own family and community, which turns out to be not as close as one assumes, as several community members try to turn the family’s misfortune into a fortune of their own.
Yet the film also doesn’t shy away from the brutality of the region. The film is set around the beginning of the second Chechen War, and in one scene Ilana and her friends watch a (real and disturbing) video of Chechen rebels executing captured Russian soldiers. Ilana and one of Zilam’s friends, both drunk and high, get into a spat about the video, as the boy praises the Muslim rebels’ work. It shows the volatility of the region’s allegiances, and highlights how even in this tight group of friends, she will always be an outsider not completely free from danger, further underlined by the kidnapping of her brother at the hands of locals.
Closeness was co-produced by Alexander Sokurov, a former mentor of Balagov’s, but stylistic similarities between the two are essentially nonexistent. The young director lists the Dardennes’ Rosetta as one of his influences, and the film indeed owes much more to their social realism and visual style, with even the protagonists having some overlap. Born in Nalchik himself a few years before the incident that inspired the film, Balagov knows the region intimately, and that’s also a quality of the Belgian brothers, which keeps both their films clear of false notes. Of course, the Dardennes have an illustrious career behind them, twice winning the Palme d’Or and a slew of other prizes. Judging by Closeness, we might have seen the emergence of a future prize winner in Kantemir Balagov.