A lonely, embittered librarian struggles to balance ethics, love and the brutal facts of survival in Russian drama “Buben baraban,” aka “Tambourine Drum.” Sophomore writer-helmer Alexei Mizgiriov (“The Hard-Hearted”) subtly evokes an atmosphere of quiet desperation and has a nicely oblique touch with storytelling; a beautifully restrained but emotionally complex lead perf from Natalya Negoda (“Little Vera”) reps another plus point. Pic should drum up minor coin domestically and have a shot at fest play.
The film opens just after the 1996 nationwide miner’s strike that paralyzed the country, and in a small, provincial coal-mining town, everyone has to do what they can to survive.
Middle-aged spinster librarian Katya (Natalya Negoda) loves literature, to such an extent that she humiliates the mother of a child who has defaced one of the books from her library. Her young colleague Yelena (Yelena Lyadova, “The Banishment”), who also lives next door in the crummy social housing provided by the state, tells Katya how much she looks up to her for holding out for true love, even if it’s left her lonely. But Katya has a secret: She steals books from the library to sell for cash.
One day a man (Dmitri Kulichkov) arrives in town, dressed as a soldier. He immediately starts making advances toward Katya, who succumbs to his charms. However, like Katya, he’s not what he seems. In fact, almost nobody in the town is really honest or straight; gradually, secrets and lies come out, precipitating a breakdown in Katya that recalls Isabelle Huppert’s disintegration in “The Piano Teacher.”
Pic starts out quite naturalistically and slowly introduces unsettling, borderline surreal touches, such as a scene in which strippers line up for display in the town’s supposedly one classy restaurant, where Katya finally eats a meal she’s never been able to afford.
Casting of Negoda in the lead not only reaps a terrific lead perf but adds extra resonance, given that Negoda once played the sexy rebel bridling against Soviet conformism and cramped social housing in “Little Vera” (1988). Given the crummy conditions and social pressures Katya has to deal with, “Buben baraban” almost forms a kind of distaff sequel to Vasily Pichul’s Glasnost-era film.
Craft contributions are a little above average for a Russian film, with good use of sound and nuanced lensing by Vadim Deev, favoring striking medium-distance compositions.