Life is suffering, and then we die. That seems to be the tone of A Gentle Creature, loosely based on a Dostoyevsky short story (though it is swimming in Kafkaesque references), and directed by Belarusian and usual documentarist Sergey Loznitsa. Nominated for best international film in Munich last year, and having Loznitsa nominated for the Cannes Palme d’Or, it shows that the International audiences are definitely acquiring a taste for depressive, bleak and hopeless Eastern European Cinema. Hurray!
A woman – we never know her name, and she is credited as “a gentle creature” – receives a parcel back, that she has sent to her husband in prison. Confused, she decides to go to the prison to deliver it personally and find out why it was sent back. From then on, things just go downhill. The prison town is full of prostitutes and dubious characters; the officers refuse to give her any information, and threaten to arrest her when she insists; everyone that is supposed to help her is more interested in telling anecdotes than giving her any useful information; even the human rights office doesn’t deem her case a priority.
Everyone in this Russia is aggressive, corrupt and ambiguous, and the long scenes are rife with metaphors, social critique and political winks. In the middle of it all, with a one-track mind, is actress Vasilina Makoytseva, our gentle creature, stoic, showing no emotion as things around her go darker and darker into nightmarish territories. She’s out of her depth in the city; she doesn’t care for nationalisms, past glories, or idealisms – she just wants to know why. And that’s the question she – spoiler alert – won’t get answered. To call A Gentle Creature a black comedy is missing the point; the film just isn’t funny. Absurdist in its tone, it’s long (almost two hours and a half), oppressive, and makes the audience think “when is it going to end??” More than the sotry of a woman against bureaucracy, this is the individual against the State, and though Loznitsa loses the plot in the final dream sequence (which feels tone deaf against the rest of the film, and ends up serving as a poor excuse of a setup for the open ending), A Gentle Creature reaches its goal: to make you wonder how long can someone go to find out about something, as you sit down for quite a while waiting to find out about something.
Not as subtle as anything by Andrey Zvyagintsev, A Gentle Creature is still a strong film with sharp points being made, about a giant country with problems to match.
A Gentle Creature will be playing in UK cinemas 13th April 2018