Though set in the early 1990s, “The Kite,” the striking feature bow of helmer Alexei Muradov, speaks of that growling, bestial side of the Russian soul that seems timeless, at least in books and movies. Its slow-moving, dreamlike camerawork roams over two archetypal Russian locations, an apartment block and a prison, circling around the characters until it comes to rest on an elderly state executioner trapped in the mechanism of his terrible life. Running from bleak and vulgar to cruel and painful, pic’s blunt honesty is not easy to watch, but could find admirers in the smaller arthouse niches. It came to the Venice Critics’ Week with several Russian fest prizes under its belt, including the Fipresci award in Sochi, and should in any case create interest in its director.
Pic wastes time at the beginning on a mean drunk outside an apartment building who threatens a little boy with a scratched face. As dawn breaks the camera shifts inside to watch an unhappy woman (Nadezhda Ozerova) struggling to wake up and face another day. Before breakfast she begins fighting with her much older husband (Viktor Solovyov). Muradov conveys their loveless relationship with irritatingly loud sounds and bad-tempered dialogue, such as an argument over a new shirt she bought him. Interrupting this unpleasantness is the man’s tenderness toward their young son (sweet-faced Pavel Zolotilin) in a wheelchair. His miserliness with his wife now becomes readable as self-sacrifice to save for the boy’s operation.
Further surprises are waiting as the man dons a uniform and goes off to work in a prison, where he participates in torturing a man to death. As pic makes clear, this horror is normal routine. As he watches an endless parade of prisoners march past, he is as impassive as they are. Back home that evening, he helps his son fly a kite, but this eagerly awaited moment predictably turns sour. There is no escape in sight, only more drudgery.
Solovyov’s hardened features are the mask of a man who has had all the kindness knocked out of him, making his feelings for his son his only human outlet. Ozerova, oozing resentment as his wife, is never seen in this second dimension.
Yet somehow the film escapes wallowing in this depressing mire through its thoughtful film work marked with a taste for abstraction. For example, a long-held shot of a dead man’s feet as he’s loaded into a truck is a synthetic image that induces reflection. Cinematographer Robert Filatov’s careful framing and wispy night shots give pic its strong atmosphere, describing a place, like a state of mind, whose bleakness can only be relieved in sleep and dreams.