The majority of European festivals, particularly the a-list ones, have steered away from Russian cinema since Putin invaded Ukraine. Such decision is partly defensible. On one hand, I can empathise with those wanting to distance themselves from Hermitage director Mikhail Piotrovsky. He not only repeatedly voiced support for the aggression, but also drew an explosive analogy between Russian culture and Russian weapons. On the other hand, the majority of Russian cinema – despite being publicly funded – hardly paints a positive picture of the largest country in the world, and barely qualifies as propaganda. Plus directors who value their life and freedom know that they cannot vocalise unequivocal criticism of the Spanless Land. Grace is no different: the Russia here portrayed is visually eviscerating, however not at all attractive. This is the very last place on earth where you would want to live.
A middle-aged father (Gela Chitava) and his teenage daughter (Maria Lukyanova) dwell in an old, tiny and shabby van. The great outdoors is their toilet, and their shower is a makeshift curtain hanging precariously outside the vehicle. They are constantly in search of something. “I want to leave”, bemoans the jaded daughter. So they move forward. It’s just never entirely clear where they are heading and why. Their journey feels aimless and timeless, much like the movie narrative. This is entirely intentional. The movie opens without any credits or logos straight into the great landscape upon which the daughter urinates. It’s almost as if 36-year-old Russian director Ilya Povolotsky wanted to confound viewers by forcing them into a seemingly pointless story. But Grace is neither a non-narrative visual experiment nor an empty and pretentious piece of slow cinema. The narrative thread is there: it’s virtually invisible in the first half of this two-hour movie, and only loosely discernible in the second half. But it’s there if you’re patient. The inevitable consequence of doing such a long film with a plot that takes so long to take off is that you are going to lose a significant fraction of your audience (the casualties of monotony walked out during the first half of the movie).
The movie takes place in the deeply rural, impoverished and sparsely Northwestern regions of Russia, particularly near the Barents Sea. The dirt roads, the abandoned buildings with broken windows and collapsing walls, and the vast and mostly treeless environment have a touch of post-apocalypse. They will look familiar if you have seen Andrey Zvyagintsev’s Leviathan (2014), which is largely filmed in the same area, a possesses a similar aesthetic sensibility. Countless tracking and extreme wide shots gently zooming in and out remind viewers of the immensity of the landscape inhabited by the nameless and lonely father and daughter. They make money by showing old crime thrillers on a mobile cinema and selling porn to teenagers. They live on the margins of society, constantly steering clear from the police. They mingle with prostitutes at petrol stations The mother died 15 years earlier, we eventually find out. It seems the man has little desire to start a new romance. He meets a single librarian with a son, but nothing comes to fruition. The daughter is a little luckier at love, but her liaison eventually proves dangerous for her father.
The desire to depart isn’t exclusive to the two protagonists. A teenage male asks to leave with them. They arrive in a large house, which turns out to be a meteorological research institution, and they ask the solitary middle-aged woman in charge: “we are looking for a place to stay, but not for long”. She coldly replies: “that’s a pity. I thought you were going to take me away”. These people too wish to go somewhere, even if they haven’t the faintest idea of where that might be. This is a film with a lot of questions and few answers. The daughter asks the woman in the institute: “to whom do you she send the forecasts?”. Silence. Then the woman in the institute asks the daughter: “how old are you?”. Silence once again. Viewers are left to come up with the possible responses.
At the most basic level, this is an outlandish ode to timeless travel, fleeting connections and rudderless loving. More subversive minds might argue this a metaphor of modern Russia.
Grace shows at the 41st Torino Film Festival. It premiered earlier this year at Directors’ Fortnight, in Cannes.