Cannes 2017 review: A Gentle Creature (Sergei Loznitsa)

Always in circles.

Ever since the Russian revolution in 1917, Russian society has been in a somewhat stagnant state. Communism and its emphasis on collectivism have engrained in the Russian psyche a concept of shared responsibility, which in reality means that no responsibility is taken, and that guilt becomes collective. In what is as a whole a violent society, this becomes a problem, because perpetrator and victim become part of a harmonious whole, in which the guilt is collectively shared. This leads to the opposite of progress: a life lived in circles.

In such a world, as soon as the protagonist of Sergei Loznitsa’s A Gentle Creature steps off the train to visit the prison her husband is incarcerated in for a crime that is not disclosed, she has reached a point of no return. She enters a world where people are cogs in a system, perfectly capable of acting  individually, but having those individual actions immediately become part of the system, and as such part of everyone. The unnamed woman has come to the prison to find out why a parcel she sent to her husband has been returned unopened. This will turn out to be a slow, grinding descent into a bureaucratic and humanistic hell. The prison and the village that lies next to it and feeds off it are a metaphor for Russian society, which is open to welcoming outsiders, hospitable to those who will join in, but will also abuse and spit out those who do not, perpetually covered by the collective. The woman, too gentle a creature, is one such person that does not fit in. Played by Vasilina Makovtseva (her first role on the big screen) in somber, helpless tones, and with a body language that speaks defeat all too soon, the woman is consistently brushed off by prison staff and corrupt villagers in an at times Kafkaesque journey that plays somewhat like a social-realist version of Aleksei German’s Hard to be a God.

Loznitsa is better known for his documentaries (including 2015 ICS nominee Maïdan), in which he shows himself to be a very observant filmmaker. His feature films are characterized by long, lingering shots that have that same observant sensibility, sparse with dialogue, rigorous in its formalism. Shooting in cinemascope, Loznitsa on several occasions fills the width of the frame with people, all huddled close together in a prison office or a hostel community room, creating a suffocating effect that mimics the suffocation felt by the central character who is somewhere in that frame, helpless, hopeless, and not attuned to this Russia. At other times, he uses the large canvas to place the protagonist in the wide open, but casts her as a small figure in an unfriendly looking world. These images combined confirm the oppressiveness of the Russian collective and the position of the individual within it, a carefully painted image of a society that cannot move forward as a result of a system that pushed out the individual, leading to a shared sense of defeatism and fatalism, and a denial of culpability and the negatives that the system brought with it.

This collective denial can best be seen in a protracted scene near the end of the film. In a surreal setting, all characters that the protagonist encountered on her journey return. While for non-Russians the dialogue in this scene is too cryptic, the positivity about the Motherland is hard to miss. It is a pattern that has returned in the film several times, where characters nostalgically reminisce about the older days (i.e. the communist era), but nowhere does it come to the forefront more than here. Given what came before, Loznitsa’s cynicism is unmissable here, especially considering what comes next. It’s not exactly subtle, but it packs a powerful punch, after which Loznitsa does turn up the subtlety in the coda, which repeats the theme of this country going in circles.

Always in circles.