Undeniably excessive, Slava Ross’ “Siberia, Monamour” (his second feature, after “Fat Stupid Rabbit”) teems with enough dramatic events to fuel a half-dozen films, each one more over-the-top than the last. Slavering packs of dogs, a devout old hermit, a youngster trapped in a well, a war-crazed army captain and two marauding thieves rep just some of the characters set against the striking landscapes of an implacable Siberia, yet Ross infuses these melodramatic Russian cliches with such exuberance that he almost redeems them. Feted at fests and released in France, “Siberia” could expand its horizons.
At the film’s center is self-reliant 7-year-old Lyoshka (Mikhail Protsko), barely subsisting with his stern, reclusive grandfather (Pyotr Zaychenko) in a ramshackle house deep in the woods, a half-tamed feral dog his only companion. The boy stubbornly (and vainly) awaits the return of his long-lost father, a military hero. Other characters circle around Lyoshka, notably his uncle Yura (Sergei Novikov), who braves the elements, killer dogs and the disapproval of wife Ana (Lidiya Bairashevskay) in order to bring supplies to his nephew in a horse-drawn cart.
Meanwhile, in a peripheral storyline, an army captain (Nikolai Kozak), a volatile vet of the Chechen war, and a naive young recruit (Maxim Yemelyanov) are ordered to the village of Monamour to pick up a prostitute for their dissolute, sadistic commander (Sergey Puskepalis, “How I Ended This Summer”). The captain, seeing Chechens in every woodpile, is barely restrained from violence by his idealistic young companion but manages to come back with a lovely young whore (Sonya Ross), variously an object of protection, veneration and rape.
Ross ratchets up the tension as men and animals mercilessly prey upon each other in a film where madness, murder and mayhem are constant threats. But a strong thread of redemption weaves its way through this pitiless struggle for survival. Unlike, for instance, Andrey Smirnov’s apocalyptic Christianity in “Once Upon a Time There Lived a Simple Woman,” “Siberia, Monamour” espouses more secular spiritualism. Indeed, when thieves steal his grandfather’s revered religious icon, little Lyoshka replaces it with a more efficacious yellow crayon drawing.
This faith in basic humanity proves capable of producing a moral about-face even in as loose a cannon as the captain. It can even allow the grandfather, racing against time to save his grandson, to slog endlessly through ice, snow and frigid lakes, surviving more near-death experiences than Michael Myers in “Halloween.”
Scarcely a master of understatement, Ross paints in broad strokes saved from caricature by the uniform excellence of his thesps. Also helpfully toning things down, the spiritual battle between brutality and salvation finds subtly serene expression in Yuri Rajsky and Alexei Todorov’s widescreen lensing, which contrasts the forest’s bleak, wintry landscape with the surrounding mountains’ soaring autumnal splendor.