Eastern Stranger

// The Moscow Times

There certainly has been a stream of blockbusters recently, of distinctly varied quality, and it’s high time more subtle, rarefied, arthouse fare made it onto Moscow’s cinema screens. Only a few weeks ago, Jos Stelling’s «Duska» had its Russian premiere at the 2Morrow festival, and now the Dutch director’s film has opened on limited release.

Stelling’s earlier works, such as 1984’s «The Illusionist“ and 1986’s“The Pointsman,» have long been favorites of local cinema enthusiasts, and Stelling himself has been a frequent visitor to festivals around Eastern Europe.

It’s just such visits that seem to have inspired his new film, both in a particular sense (of which more later), and in its general sensibility. Filmmakers from the Netherlands, Ukraine and Russia took part in the production, though asking which of these countries the film is from looks redundant, not least because Stelling distinctly avoids dialogue, and the title character, played by Russian actor Sergei Makovetsky, is almost monosyllabic.

The film opens with the hero’s birth somewhere out in the Slavic sticks in an undefined time. His mother goes into labor while on a primitive bus to the hospital. Surrounding old ladies croon over the newborn child and give him his moniker.

It’s an episode that seems closer to the work of Serbian-born director Emir Kusturica than to much of the rest of Stelling’s.

Cut to an anonymous cityscape in contemporary Holland, where writer and film critic Bob (Gene Bervoets) is experiencing writer’s block. The surrounding streets are mostly dark, and his main diversion from his computer and bottles of wine is visiting the cinema next door, where he’s taken by the looks of a cashier (Sylvia Hoeks, who never seems to have a screen name). She’s involved in her own complicated relationships, but eventually their paths come together.

When he finally brings her home, their tryst is interrupted by the arrival of Duska, who has a suitcase and nothing else. Bob can’t remember how he knows Duska, but he’s come to the right address, and the writer lets him in.

Thus begins the pair’s strange symbiosis, with the Dutchman both absorbed by the newcomer, and his unmediated reaction to the world, and disturbed by Duska’s apparent intention to stay permanently. Makovetsky’s character, however, just doesn’t think about such things. Even when he’s dumped in a forest, he doesn’t bear a grudge and assumes his previous role.

Stelling doesn’t labor his film with details like how exactly Duska reached the Netherlands — the movie’s silences speak for themselves, as does its rich musical script. The director might hesitate to claim it’s an exploration of the contrasting mentalities of Western Europe and the Slavic world (there’s no clear hint as to whether Duska is Russian, Ukrainian or, say, Serbian), but there’s something of that there. Instead, he’s described it as being about loneliness, and how that prompts a kind of instinctual interdependence.

When Duska disappears as mysteriously as he arrived, Bob goes to look for him in his native land, and Stelling’s mood turns more satirical. We learn that the writer had a minute-long chance conversation with Duska at an East European film festival, the atmosphere and characters at which are portrayed from an acutely sarcastic perspective. The ambiance at the «Festival of Festivals of Festivals» will be familiar to anyone who, like Stelling, has been to such events.

But such irony, which appears only late in the proceedings, is relatively incidental to the film’s wider story and mood. Stelling creates a quiet, contemplative, often melancholy tale in which glances and music are more revealing than words. It speaks of differences between two contrasting worlds, and an enigmatic conclusion suggests that neither is better than the other. Just different, it seems — as human beings themselves are different.

Stelling’s sense of silence resounds with that of Ossetian director Aslan Galazov, whose «The Swallows Have Arrived,» reviewed in these pages, won the main prize at February’s Spirit of Fire festival in Khanty-Mansiisk and was subsequently screened at a couple of Moscow festivals. There was considerable doubt as to whether any distributor would release the film — but at last, thankfully, one has.

In many ways «Swallows» is as downbeat as «Duska» in the depictions of its hero and the slowly unfolding life of Vladikavkaz.

But there’s an extra element, as the film’s hero, Konstantin (Irlan Khugayev, who’s also the scenarist), has something to escape from, although Galazov takes his time to reveal the details.

Known by a nickname, «Pik,» Konstantin is clearly ill, and struggles to engage in his job as a lecturer. He’s ignored by students and acquaintances alike.

In the course of the film’s Sunday afternoon denouement, it’s revealed that Pik has a serious drug addiction, and he wanders the city trying to get a fix. Galazov’s observation is acute and understated, not unlike that of Stelling, and his closing scenes are also left intriguingly open.

Both directors’ voices are reticent, and it’s a cause for celebration that they are reaching Russian audiences, even if in limited runs, at all.

Tom Birchenough

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