Cannes 2023 review: Grace (Ilya Povolotsky)

“Ilya Povolotsky’s Grace (Blazh) is one of the most stunning feature debuts in recent memory.”

An ode to the power of cinema as a collective experience, precisely what jury president Ruben Östlund spoke about in his speech at this year’s festival opening ceremony, composed on the power of slow cinema and the inspiring vastness of landscape. A beguiling finger on the pulse of the Russian hinterland and its hodgepodge of ethnic components. An intimate father-daughter drama surrounding two loners bound and condemned to each other. Ilya Povolotsky’s Grace (Blazh) is one of the most stunning feature debuts in recent memory, perhaps the first one since his compatriot Kantemir Balagov brought his devastating Tesnota to the Croisette. Set on the periphery of human existence, Povolotsky’s film manages to almost silently captivate and surprise. In the current political climate selecting a Russian film for your festival is a bold move, and thankfully the selection team at this year’s Quinzaine have taken the plunge, otherwise the world might have missed out on this bleak masterpiece.

An unnamed father and his equally unnamed daughter traverse the Russian landscape in their van, which holds everything they hold dear. They scrape together a meagre income with their travelling cinema, an impromptu drive-in theatre set up in remote villages or simply in the vast open spaces Russia has in abundance. This practice isn’t always legal and they do have to run on occasion, but the big silver screen unites their audiences who gape at it in wonder, no matter what’s playing. The relationship between father and daughter is strained though, the source of this strife unclear. Could it be the cinema they create themselves, homegrown porn produced with the help of rest-stop prostitutes and sold to lonely truck drivers, in a sense all of them drifters like they are? When a boy enters the picture, the bond between father and daughter may be forever broken.

Dour and bleak, and imbued with a strong dose of melancholia, this is Russian cinema alright. Grace is sparse in dialogue but rich in visual power both through its juxtaposition of the stunning wide-open landscapes and the claustrophobic interior of the van, and through Povolotsky’s expert use of long takes. Nikolay Zheludovich’s richly textured cinematography renders the desolation of both the spaces and the relationship between the two protagonists in grainy images full of dark greens and greys, with the girl’s sweater providing the only bright spots in the image. Taken all together Povolotsy’s visual storytelling captures the harsh life on the Russian road in coarse yet strangely delicate detail.

What this bleak odyssey also renders exceptionally well is the makeup of the Russian population, and it mostly does it through language. The father, being somewhat of an expert in the many tongues spoken within the borders of this vast country, converses with locals in their own diverse languages, highlighting that the Russian identity is not a uniform one but a rich tapestry of differing cultures. This particularly hits home with the current war in mind, as Moscow draws most of its cannon fodder from these faraway corners of its territory, which means they are not just depleting the (male) population but also the many cultures the country houses.

At its core Grace is a film about female empowerment, but does anyone have power in this country? Povolotsky delves into the desolation and the hopelessness of living in a lawless place where you can only fend for yourself, but there is also a strong sense of perseverance in the character of the daughter, powerfully played by a defiant Maria Lukyanova. Late in the film Povolotsky has her experience her first sexual encounter, and in a refreshing reversal of power he gives us a full frontal of the boy, while not showing anything of her. The girl takes a polaroid of her lover, another one for her collection, as she tries to document a dying country. Given the war currently raging on, that dying can be taken quite literally, but when it comes to cinema Russia is still bursting with new life. After Balagov and Malika Musaeva (in Berlin this year with The Cage is Looking for a Bird, another great and poetic film), Povolotsky presents himself as yet another talent from a country where cinema reflects the country’s soul like no other.