Cast: Valeriu Andriuta, Vasilina Makovtseva, Liya Akhedzhakova Director: Sergey Loznitsa
In A Gentle Creature, director Sergey Loznitsa’s latest film, none of the characters are addressed by their names. Even actress Vasilina Makovtseva, who plays the part of the titular gentle creature—turning in one of the great, restrained performances of the year—goes unnamed. It is as if the ordinary Russians portrayed in the film have no names at all. Or, worse still, simply no need for any. The state of affairs becomes clearer towards the end when a prison warden uses a number instead of a name to refer both to our protagonist’s enquiry slip and her husband.
Russians exist en masse to the powers that be, the writer-director appears to say, and not as distinct individuals. Viewed distinctly, the government will have to contend with appraising them as pimps, hustlers, gangsters, fixers, victims, underpaid government servants, drunks, writers et al; a horrifying scenario that can distract from the grand task of projecting a glorious, airbrushed image of a clean, strong motherland. Unavoidably, the gentle creature continues to suffer quietly and resiliently under the yoke of the powerful and the silent, acquiescent powerless.
Loznitsa’s gentle creature creeps and crawls up and down ramshackle buses, claustrophobic government offices, through one shady inn to another, all in an attempt to meet her imprisoned husband and deliver some essential food items to him. She holds onto her silence steadfastly throughout the film, guarding it like a medal against the raillery, the exaggerated conversations and patriotic singing that surrounds her during her infernal odyssey into the dark heart of the land. She encounters despair at every corner, if not a complete dead end. “You have no husband while he’s in prison. Understand?”, a policeman warns her. Her quiet is broken only in a dream sequence at the end, where it’s shattered to smithereens by her screams as she gets gang-raped. The violence hitherto lurking at the edges and beyond the frames of Loznitsa’s film breaks through the final barrier of her privacy, assaulting her intimacy in the most inhuman manner possible.
AGC is heartbreaking to watch and Loznitsa is unsparing in his mission of making his audience bear witness to the injustice eating away at the insides of contemporary Russia. The camera remains fixed during every scene, panning and tilting this way and that to depict the slow but gradual encroachment of violence upon our protagonist’s psyche. Masterfully, though, the camera never intrudes upon the characters, in a frail artistic attempt to maintain the sanctity of their personal spaces in a country hellbent upon abolishing this notion completely.
Loznitsa uses the joke as a peculiarly potent portent of violence and despair. When our protagonist is about to head out to town to meet her husband at the prison, her colleague quips, “My man never went to prison, so I couldn’t see the world.” The taxi driver who takes her to the prison compound calls the institution the church of his town, taking pride in the way it protects its inmates from the harm they can mete out to themselves and others while they’re outside. “Your husband is a lucky man,” he concludes. Our gentle creature remains a mute audience during these passages throughout the film, seldom offering more than a word or two in response. It is the ultimate expression of despair, a submission that rails against the very act of submitting to an invisible power; it only adds to the helplessness of her condition.
AGC is full of suffering. Even when the film suddenly dispenses of its realism to plunge into an extended dream sequence, there is no respite for our protagonist. The same people who surrounded her during her odyssey in the real world don fancy clothing to torment her again, albeit from a distance. They remain as subservient as ever, faithfully licking boots and “smelling the polish on the soldier’s shoes” like sweet perfume. The gentle creature remains mute as ever, never becoming a guest at this party, before being ravished violently inside a moving police car.
Loznitsa doesn’t offer any answers to the ordinary person’s predicament. I’m not sure if there are any. Too many questions crowd the individuals’ minds. Their harshness clangs and crashes, creating a uniquely infernal music of its own, slowly hurling the masses into a trance. Beneath it all, humanity and the basic tenets of human decency and love suffer indiscriminately.
A Gentle Creature is a terrifying and disturbing descent down the rings of hell. It is a depiction of the state’s infiltration not only of people’s lives but their very hopes and dreams themselves. It is a warning against unchecked power and mute acquiescence to the law. By depicting an ordinary person’s insurmountable struggle to get something as innocent and simple as delivering food to her husband done, the director paints a darkly expressionist picture of the times we live in. Interestingly—and forgive me if I err in my observation—Loznitsa never shows children in this film. If it was an intentional decision, the message should sound loud and clear for subservient and compliant masses around the world. There is no future when you continue to strangle your present with your bare hands.