Some stunning shots and a likable protag can’t cover up the narrative shallowness of Andrei Konchalovsky’s latest drama.
An isolated village in Russia’s far north is the setting for Andrei Konchalovsky’s “The Postman’s White Nights,” a fiction feature informed by reality with a cast largely composed of non-professional locals acting out their daily lives. The story, about a charismatic postman who is the locals’ sole connection to the outside world, allows Konchalovsky to bring in a host of themes, from the sublime in nature to post-communist nostalgia and vodka, always vodka. Some stunning shots and a likable protag can’t cover up the story’s shallowness, which means international exposure will rely on fests and a limited Euro release.
Rural Russian atmosphere seems to be all the rage after Aleksey Fedorchenko’s “Silent Souls” and the like, though Konchalovsky is hardly a stranger to the genre, and “Postman” has much in common with the vet helmer’s 1994 Cannes title, “Assia and the Hen With the Golden Eggs,” in that both are set in villages, using mostly non-actors taken from the locale. Piqued by the idea of a country mailman’s vital role as lifeline to inaccessible communities, the director searched for the right representative and found it in Aleksey Tryapitsyn, serving a remote area on the shores of Lake Kenozero, south of Arkhangelsk.
The pressbook should probably drop Konchalovsky’s quote, “This film is my depiction of my life amidst the very simple Russian people,” reeking of either condescension or irony (it’s difficult to tell, though likely the former). “Postman” doesn’t ridicule the locals, but it does show them as simple folk with basic needs (like vodka); side characters, especially when seen in professional capacities as store clerk or post office manager, convey more interest than most of the main players.
Lyokha (Tryapitsyn) is a local, a recovering alcoholic on the wagon for the last two years, who delivers the mail via motorboat. He also brings people their pension money and other goods, making him a crucial link to the outside world for villagers living in hard-to-reach areas without roads. Ever the joker, Lyokha enjoys flirtations, especially with Irina (Irina Ermolova, one of the few professional actors), a transplant in these parts with her young son Timur, aka Timka (Timur Bondarenko, another pro and extremely good).
The film’s best interactions are with these three, especially a lovely scene in which Lyokha takes Timka out on a boat and frightens the boy with talk of the local witch, the Kikimora. A crisis comes when Lyokha’s motor is stolen, making it impossible for him to do his job. At the city post office hq, he’s told it will take possibly months to get him a new one via official channels, which isn’t an option, yet he can’t afford to buy one himself. Making things worse, Irina, the unrequited object of his affections, is moving away.
Konchalovsky throws in a scene in the nearby Plesetsk Cosmodrome, just before a space rocket launch, as a way of reminding auds that the modern world exists side-by-side with wooden house communities living much as they did for the past hundred years. The idea may work for some viewers, yet it’s a rather facile acknowledgment, and notwithstanding a gag scene towards the end that draws a laugh, the rocket scenes feel gratuitous.
Far more successful are sequences in which Lyokha pauses to listen to nature and, via a felicitous transition from natural sounds to music (especially Verdi’s “Requiem”), literally hears the sublime. These moments, among the lake inlets and soaring forests, offer rewards much greater than the piecemeal plot. Also interesting is the villagers’ relationship with the past, from the funeral of an elderly woman lauded as the last representative of diligent “Socialist Romanticism,” to Lyokha’s reverie of popular Communist songs as he stands in the ruins of the defunct local school. There’s a hint that life had more purpose then, though like all else here, nothing is explored with any depth.
This sort of superficial impressionism just about works thanks in some part to Tryapitsyn’s ebullient persona, but largely because Aleksander Simonov’s lensing offers frequent riches beyond the film’s limited scope. An early shot from just behind Lyokha’s head as he’s speeding along the glass-like lake is astonishingly beautiful, proof that a master director like Konchalovsky can take a rather commonplace image and, by knowing exactly the right angle and combining it with slowly emerging choral notes, make it hypnotically awe-inspiring. Interiors are often shot from odd, skewed angles, underlining the peculiar nature of the locals. The region’s glorious diffused northern light adds to the majesties of the exteriors.