Could the characters’ actions in 1986-set drama “Innocent Saturday” be more Soviet? Upon learning they’ve been exposed to lethal doses of radiation from Chernobyl, they make feeble attempts to skip town, but then fatalistically give up when there’s a chance to earn some rubles, and party all night long. Offshore auds may struggle to comprehend the culturally credible mindset seen here, and may be put off further by the mannered lensing, but Russian helmer Alexander Mindadze’s sophomore feature radiates an increasingly poignant glow as it progresses. East of the Danube, pic could do reasonable biz.
A white-collar worker at the Chernobyl power plant, Valery Kabysh (up-and-comer Anton Shagin, “Hipsters”) is horrified when he learns one of the plant’s nuclear reactors has exploded. He knows the further he can get away, the better his chance of survival will be, and time is of the essence. He dashes to Prypiat, the nearby workers’ dormitory town, to persuade his g.f., Vera (newcomer Svetlana Smirnova-Marcinkevich), to get the hell out of Dodge with him on the first available train. But Vera breaks a heel on the way to the station and they miss the train by seconds. A strange sense of denial sets in, and instead of running, the couple go shoe-shopping and are soon swept back up into everyday life.
Before long, Vera is honoring her commitment to sing at a wedding with her rock band, for which Valery used to play drums. When the band’s new drummer (Vyacheslav Petkun) passes out drunk between sets, Valery lets his old bandmates (Stanislav Ryadinski, Vasili Guzov and Aleksei Demidov) persuade him to fill in, which he does with end-of-the-world fervor. (The ’80s garage-band sound is surprisingly good.) Soon they’re all boozing together, even though old grudges are percolating just below the surface.
There’s obvious resonance here with helmer Mindadze’s first feature, “Soar,” which centers on another fatal disaster (a plane crash) that’s covered up, while Valery’s frustrated attempts to escape recalls the script Mindadze wrote for Aleksei Uchitel’s 1950s-set drama “Dreaming of Space.” Both “Space” and “Innocent Saturday” mull over a facet of the Soviet psyche that non-Slavs may struggle to comprehend — namely, how difficult it was to slip the bonds of community even though life under socialism was so miserably dreary, even life-threatening.
Mindadze and Romanian lenser Oleg Mutu (“4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days,” “The Death of Mr. Lazarescu”) have devised a very literal way of illustrating Valery’s inability to leave his friends behind. Almost entirely handheld, the camera mostly hovers uncomfortably close to the characters’ faces and bodies, favoring a shallow-focus style throughout that makes the pic particularly challenging to watch. Only rarely does the camera pull back for a medium shot, while long shots are deployed almost exclusively for rare views of the ravaged power plant (rendered via visual effects) smoldering evilly in the distance. The idea is that Valery literally can’t see past his friends, which is a clever idea, but too on-the-nose to be fully effective.
For auds with stomachs strong enough to withstand the shaky visuals, pic eventually pays off with a nicely understated feeling of elegiac melancholy. Shagin carves out a lot with relatively few lines, and impresses with a robustly physical perf.
Vodka-clear sound recording is the standout among the generally pro tech credits.