The Shoe,” a first feature by the Latvian director Laila Pakalnina, who scored a personal success at Cannes’ Un Certain Regard two years ago with her much-admired shorts “The Ferry” and “The Mail,” evinces the same astonishing B&W photographic virtuosity without having the narrative energy to travel the distance. Pakalnina’s primary interest still centers on a visual esthetic, and select viewers will find her original eye and compositional talent sufficient reason to overlook pic’s numbing slowness and non-narrative structure. This is the kind of material that art museums can showcase but few other venues will play.
The grotesque story kicks off when the Red Army finds a woman’s shoe on the beach, somewhere on the Baltic coast in the 1950s. Three bumbling young Russian soldiers are assigned to locate the “foreign spy” who left it behind. They traipse around a nearby town, fitting the incriminating piece of footwear Cinderella-fashion on the feet of ladies old and young. Their senseless, mildly amusing and ultimately fruitless mission makes up the body of the film.
It is frustrating that pic’s slyly offbeat humor, hovering between cold-war paranoia and bureaucratic madness, steadfastly refuses to be funny. Despite the comic premise, there are very few laughs in the film owing to Pakalnina’s conviction that shots and scenes must be held beyond all endurance. One gag that starts to work — frozen people standing behind doors the soldiers open — is repeated until it is done to death. Since none of the three thesps is given enough dialog or close-ups to emerge as a character, they remain faceless ciphers and their quest for the shoe’s owner becomes a tiredly over told joke.
The film’s slow pace suggests a fairy tale land where time stands still, at least in the Soviet era. Though long out of date as social commentary, pic obviously has fun depicting the Soviet military as absurd lords of the realm who act as if they were guarding the Berlin Wall instead of a sleepy village where people give them the contemptuous cold shoulder. True or not, it gives the impression that the Red Army was taken as an inconsequential joke in Latvia.
What really interests the filmmaker appears to be none of this, but rather creating a context in which to display her exciting talent for composing black and white images. Pakalnina and cinematographer Gints Berzins (who shot “The Ferry” and “The Mail”) use high contrast lighting and mainly outdoor locations to design beautiful shots in which nothing may happen besides the rustling of bird wings. Movement within a shot, such as a figure slowly advancing from background to foreground, plays a graphic rather than narrative role, while editing by Sandra Alksne concentrates on juxtaposing images within a totally unhurried time frame.
Yet however fascinating the individual shots and the atmosphere they manage to create, “The Shoe” could have been more effective had it used them more sparingly and with a greater sense of rhythm — or if it had been Spartanly edited as a short film.