Anyone familiar with the m.o. of Russian arthouse films will immediately assume the title “A Long and Happy Life” is meant to be ironic, and so it proves with this short and sad film. Although predictable in other respects, Boris Khlebnikov’s “High Noon”-inspired tale of a farmer trying, in doomed fashion, to do the right thing nevertheless reps a solid piece of craftsmanship, more coherent and accessible than the helmer’s previous Berlinale submission, “Help Gone Mad.” Pic should have a brief lifespan domestically and could enjoy further offshore outings at fests and as a limited release in select territories.
In a remote northern township, city-born farm leaseholder Alexander Sergeevich or “Sasha” (Alexander Yatsenko, star of Khlebnikov’s sophomore pic, “Free Floating”) faces a choice that looks like a no-brainer: Either stay and work the land in the ailing village he’s moved to, or sell for a sizable compensation fee from the local government’s land administration office, and move back to civilization with his pretty g.f., Anna (Anna Kotova), who’s been his mole at the bureau.
However, when he tells his farm workers the deal is all but done, which means they’ll also get a cut of the fee — albeit a meager one — when he signs the papers, a “mini-revolution” unfolds. Turns out they don’t want to stop farming, an understandable position given the current economy, and they implore Sasha to help lead a ragtag armed resistance should the officials try to remove them by force. Knowing Anna will be furious, but touched by his employees’ faith in him, Sasha tries to back out of the deal. Perhaps he’s too easily flattered by their seemingly innocent loyalty to him, and it’s telling that the workers call him the Russian equivalent of “master,” evoking a complex kind of nostalgia for the serf-landowner relations of pre-Soviet times.
Even so, cleaving roughly in spirit to the “High Noon” template, the plot tracks how, one by one, the villagers let Sasha down and betray him, even Zhenia (reliable character thesp Evgeny Sitiy), the most vocal hothead in favor of fighting, who swindles Sasha out of 15,000 roubles (about $500) so he can skip town. The only one left is a gormless kid with nowhere else to go (Gleb Puskepalis, once the child star of Khlebnikov’s co-directed 2003 debut, “Koktebel”).
Although “Life’s” core premise technically makes at “inaction” film of sorts, Khlebnikov spikes the tempo with some pacey, nicely kinetic sequences, including a ominous fire-fighting scene at the start that demonstrates Sasha’s natural leadership abilities, and a climactic shootout that is striking for its subdued use of sound and unusual camera angles. Indeed, d.p. Pavel Kostomarov’s digital lensing reps a highlight, especially the painterly way it captures the glowering beauty of the volatile nearby river and the brightly colored autumnal landscape of the Murmansk Region where the pic was shot. Intentionally jagged editing also creates a nervy, tense feel in the middle reels, and breaks up the monotony of watching the villagers go about their grindingly repetitive work, whether building a chicken coop or organizing a potato harvest.