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Lessons of Tolerance (Uroky Tolerantnosti)

LGBT+ awareness training course gives homophobia its comeuppance in this filthy genius comedy from Ukraine - live from the Critics' Picks Competition of the 27th Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival


A typical older family with debt problems in Ukraine. The mother Nadia (Olena Uzlyuk) is the one member of the family keeping everything together, holding down a job as a teacher. From what we see of her at home, we would imagine she’s very good at it, too. Alas, the same can’t be said for the rest of the family. Husband Zenyk (Oleksandr Yarema) has always wanted his own garage, but has no head for running a business. He spends his evenings sitting around drinking beer and being waited on hand and foot by his wife and daughter, because that’s what women are supposed to do. Then he complains in bed because his wife is not interested in sex these days.

They have two grown-up kids. Daughter Diana (Karolina Mruha) is an aspiring actress who is applying for drama school despite warnings that she may lack the necessary talent. Son Denys (Oleksandr Piskunov) meanwhile is rabidly anti-gay, expressing sentiments to that effect in no uncertain terms in the home. Neither of them are making any money.

Nadia has a solution, which the others probably aren’t going to like. There’s money available for any family that signs up for and completes a state LGBT+ awareness training course, and it’s quite a considerable sum, too. The way it works is that a course representative who is gay will come and live with the family for three weeks, during which time he will conduct a number of LGBT+ awareness sessions. Deeply conservative Zenyk is worried what the neighbours might think, while son Denys goes off the deep end at the suggestion. Nevertheless, the debts are mounting, the course seems like a good idea financially, and they decide to go for it.

The next thing that happens is that Vasyl (Akmal Hurezov), the man from the course, turns up at the door, very smart and personable, and they immediately ask where the gay guy is. He assures them he IS the gay guy, and embeds himself in their small apartment, unobtrusively providing his own bedding to sleep in an out-of-the-way room.

In line with its title, after its opening, the film is divided into ten chapters, each dealing with different issues. Vasyl gets things going by passing around a globe of truth, a glass ball which randomly glows in different colours, of which the temporary holder is encouraged to speak their mind on whatever subject is under discussion, no holds barred, just let your feelings out and not worry about what anyone else might think. This leads to some frank group exchanges, and over the ensuing days, Vasyl talks to the different members of the household individually, coaxing out their concerns and problems. They start one by one to warm to him.

Now, this might all sound very dry and an attempt at politically correct box-ticking, and to potentially make matters worse, it’s adapted from a play which can so often lead to leaden, stagebound cinema. In fact, however, this is a deftly observed and often hilariously realised exercise in comedy, sometimes venturing into farce, expertly played by a strong cast clearly gifted in the area of comic timing. There are many genuinely funny laughs here, arising quite believably out of situation and character. It is this writer’s considered opinion that comedy is the single most difficult film genre to do well – I’ve lost count of the number of alleged comedy films I’ve seen that just aren’t funny – and I take my hat off to any film that achieves this, which this one does in spades.

Perhaps my favourite scene is the one where the husband, having confided in Vasyl about the lack of sexual action in his marital relationship, not unlike the eponymous character of Kalman’s Day (also playing this year in Tallinn), and keen to learn about sensual massage, has Vasyl give him a demonstration of a shoulder and back rub, which is staged, framed and shot so that it looks like Vasyl is buggering the husband – which he isn’t, it’s actually all very innocent. However, when various family members stumble on the scene, it’s quickly misread to hilarious effect.

Virtually the entire film takes place in the small family apartment, a production restriction caused in part by the current war situation in Ukraine, but the cast and crew turn space limitation into a virtue, shooting angles within the confined space in interesting ways, some of which involve inventive placements and movements of the camera itself.

There are a lot of people out there with sexual hang-ups of one sort or another, whether LGBT+ or not, and the film has much to say to all of them. Which is probably to say, just about anyone. It’s set in a Ukraine where there is no sign of the current war, and, as such, will have provided welcome comic relief to indigenous audiences in what is undeniably a dark and difficult time for that country, an achievement not to be understated. That element also means the film travels well abroad. It deserves to be widely seen not because its heart is in the right place, which it absolutely is, but because it’s very, very funny. For all the right reasons.

Lessons of Tolerance just premiered at the Critics’ Picks Competition of the 27th Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival.

By Jeremy Clarke - 12-11-2023

Jeremy Clarke has been writing about movies in various UK print publications since the late 1980s as well as online in recent years. He’s excited by movies which provoke audiences, upset convent...

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