By Arun Kumar
The filmmaking career of Russian director Andrey Konchalovskiy is filled with terrific high-points and unbelievable low-points. The list of collaborators he had in his five-plus decade career range between Andrei Tarkovsky and Sylvester Stallone. He directed couple of brilliant portrait of rural communities, Asya’s Happiness (1966) and Siberiade (1979), a very good adaptation of Chekov’s play (Uncle Vanya, 1971), a well-known action thriller wrapped with profound philosophical questions (Runaway Train, 1985), and also helmed critically panned box-office flops like Homer and Eddie (1989) and The Nutcracker 3D (2010). Even Mr. Konchalovskiy’s family history was equally interesting. His grandfather was a renowned painter, father (Sergei Mikhalkov) was a writer who also wrote Soviet Union national anthem, and younger brother Nikita Mikhalkov is also a famous director (Urga, The Burnt Sun). Apart from cinema, Mr. Konchalovskiy was highly acclaimed for his works in theatre and opera.
Andrey Konchalovskiy trained as a pianist, but chose directing career after his collaboration with Russian auteur Andrei Tarkovsky. He worked as scenarist (screenwriter) for Tarkovsky’s Ivan’s Childhood (1962) and Andrei Rublev (1966). After the festival circuit success of Grand-Prix winning Siberiade, Konchalovskiy moved to the US in the early 1980s. He came across Akira Kurosawa’s script which was to be made by Francis Ford Coppola, under the title Runaway Train. When Mr. Coppola wasn’t able to do it, he rose to the occasion and probably made one of the best action/thriller in the history of cinema. Mr. Konchalovskiy has confided in many interviews that he found it hard to work for Hollywood Studio bosses more than the task of evading iron-handed Soviet censors. The fallout in Hollywood happened when the director got fired from Sylvester Stallone starring cop movie Tango & Cash (1989). In the next two decades, Konchalovskiy’s made two fairly good movies – The Inner Circle (1991) and House of Fools (2002). Then came the biggest box-office disaster, the British-Hungarian adaptation of the ballet The Nutcracker (2009), made on budget of $90 million. In 2014, Andrei Konchalovskiy unexpectedly returned with a marvel of a film, The Postman’s White Nights (winning the Silver Bear for best director at Berlin Film Festival). The 80-year-old film-maker’s recent film Paradise (2016) also received rave reviews and won Silver Lion at Venice Film Festival.
The Postman’s White Nights sees director Andrey Konchalovskiy returning to his favorite backdrop: rural community. It’s a docudrama (or a quasi-documentary) made on a shoe-string budget, involving the real residents of a sparsely populated village, set alongside the banks of picturesque Lake Kenozero, in northern Russia. Mr. Konchalovskiy first zeroed-in on his perfect protagonist, a humble, craggy-faced, blue-eyed postman Lyokha (Aleksey Tryapitsin), whose job is to travel to and from the mainland by motorboat, bringing the pension payouts and other urgent essentials (like groceries) for the village folk, mostly consisting of old people long forgotten by their family. The people live in tiny wooden cabins, forlornly gazing at the lake or watching blaring TV programs. The director chose five other residents of the village and allowed a script to form from their interactions with each other (these participants were also allowed to improvise).
Lyokha seems to be the only contact with outside world for the elderly residents, who all spend their pension money on vodka to soothe the pain of their existence. Lyokha, however, haven’t had a drink in two years after witnessing too many deaths from drunken boating accidents. The film slowly pulls us to experience the mundane nature of Lyokha’s life – getting up, making tea, watching TV, journeying on the water, trip to post-office, and grocery shop, etc. If there’s something dramatic in Lyokha’s life so as to develop into plot, then it is his relationship with neighbor/friend Irina (Irina Ermolova) and her little, curious son Timur (Timur Bondarenko). Irina is a local fisheries officer who isn’t very friendly with the village populace (fishing is mostly prohibited and she seizes the fishes from the bored old people taking out their boat) and she is intent on moving out to mainland. There was also another possibility of dramatic episode as the engine from Lyokha’s motorboat is stolen. But, director Konchalovskiy doesn’t unnecessarily extract drama from these scenarios. He just closely observes the existential questions afflicting Lyokha’s mind, who is wondering at his purpose in this obscure region of Russia that’s cut-off like an unwanted limb. How long can he be the lifeblood for this dying community?
The film shot by Aleksander Simonov – long-time collaborator of my favorite modern Russian film-maker, the late Aleksei Balabanov – perfectly catches the cycle of mundanity (in the long endless days of summer) interspersed with distinctly real, emotional moments. The in-door shots are mostly captured using hidden cameras so as to not disturb the dreary routine (director and his limited crew spent more than a year with the residents to gain their full-fledged commitment). There are quite a few breathtaking outdoor shots, especially the sudden cut to Lyokha’s cruising his boat on the placid surface of the lake, or the ponderous shot of Lyokha standing at the edge of pastoral land, which visualizes the edges of this tragic, maddening monotony. Konchalovskiy and Simonov also conjure some exicitingly surreal images, like that of a grey cat or the rocket blasting on to the sky. Furthermore, Andrey Konchalovskiy’s subtle direction stops us from passing it off as simple work of social realism or anthropological studies. The director obviously comments on the ominous nature of ruthless neo-liberal policies. But the commentary isn’t of overt nature, thanks to some of the profound as well as delightfully uncanny visual moments.
The inner chasm in Lyokha’s life is explored in a similar formally fascinating manner. For example, his dreams of an abandoned, dilapidated school-house that’s still flowing with music and noisy chatter or the image of giant rocket humming in a warehouse as he is imploring for an engine. The rocket briefly appears in the vital final moment. It flies by as Lyokha is chatting with his friend on the lake shore. They both don’t turn and look at it. It pretty much represents their plight – a world that’s left them and moved on. Or, may be it’s an indication of all of our lives as we continue to conquer the space above our heads, but not the burgeoning alienation of the self. In fact, the powerful final images will invite different interpretations based on the perceiver. Despite making a film that looks like a lament for the old way of life, director Konchalovskiy offers an interesting sketch of togetherness, persisting amongst the indifferent world. The people Lyokha encounters in mainland are apathetic to his situation (they are only shot with static, long shots unlike the intimate portrait of the villagers) and the possibility that this uncaring attitude has infected the old folk of abandoned land is what ails Lyokha more than losing his engine to a thief.
The Postman’s White Nights (2014) is an elegiac poem about a gradually perishing community. Director Andrey Konchalovskiy’s unforced quasi-documentary approach and perfect realization of this almost mythical atmosphere offers a deeply reflective cinematic experience.
Arun Kumar is a Software professional with an unbridled passion for the world of cinema and books. He believes in an enriching film culture – from watching great cinema to engaging with its connoisseurs. Currently, he blogs at Passion for Movies and Passion for Books.
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