A superbly scripted drama about the relationships among a group of people in a town recently traumatized by civil war, “Time of the Dancer” makes light of its long running time and lack of visual style thanks to the engrossing characters and multifaceted emotions on display. Structured like a three-act play, with a modern Chekhovian feel in its lack of simple villains or heroes, this remarkably meaty work by Ukrainian director Vadim Abdrashitov (“Parade of the Planets,” “Play for a Passenger”) should win friends at festivals and on specialist webs, though commercial prospects in the West are almost nil.
Setting of the action is deliberately not specified, though it is clearly somewhere down south in the Caucasus. Peace has come to the formerly war-torn region, and, after a year away, Larisa (Svetlana Kopylova) returns with her two kids to take up residence with her husband, Valeri (Yuri Stepanov). Also on hand are Valeri’s buddies, Andrei (Andrei Yegorov), a dancer in a Cossack performing troupe who stayed outside the conflict, and Fyodr (Sergei Nikonenko), who fought in the Russian army alongside Valeri.
At a welcome party that night, Larisa notices forthright young tease Katya (Chulpan Khamatova), and it’s to her bed that Valeri quietly slips away in the middle of the night. The pair decide to carry on their affair despite Larisa’s return, even when the latter catches hubby sneaking back in the house the following dawn.
There’s a real epic feel in the way the story slowly lays out its characters, with the viewer getting to know them in depth in extended, well-written sequences. After this giant first act, lasting 45 minutes but covering less than a day, the action switches (sometime later) to a group meal in a restaurant. Small bits of info emerge — the war has now been over six months, the Muslim eatery owner was on the losing side to Valeri and company — and the focus switches to Fyodr, who romances a buttoned-up nurse, Olga (Natalya Loskutova).
Gradually, the three friends’ destinies intertwine: Fyodr shoots a sleazy black marketeer who was giving the drunken Andrei a hard time, Valeri forces himself on Katya when he thinks she is starting to fancy Andrei, and — in the final act, set a while later — Andrei turns up at the house of the now-married Fyodr and Olga with an apparently compliant Muslim bride who has her own agenda of revenge for past injustices.
Though there’s a slight imbalance in the structure, with Valeri, Larisa and Katya effectively disappearing during the third section, the strength of the movie is its depiction of the scars of war through the ways people relate to one another rather than through political discourse or psychological trauma. The viewer is given enough clues about the horrors of the conflict without it ever being shown or the characters obsessing about its impact; no one ever breaks down, or even refers to specific incidents — life goes on, though in subtly changed ways.
Aleksandr Mindadze’s screenplay consistently springs surprises and agreeable left turns whenever the story threatens to lose its edge. There’s always a feeling that there’s more history between these people than will ever make it onto the screen, but despite that, one is led into a kind of familiarity with them.
Playing by the experienced cast is top-notch down the line. Given the quality of the dialogue, it’s a pity the English subtitles in print caught were so poor. Technically, pic is OK, with no frills, though Viktor Lebedev’s score has a simple dignity.