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A luminous, beautifully acted essay on a rural woman coming into her own following the sudden death of her deeply unsympathetic husband, “Traveling With Pets” reps helmer Vera Storozheva’s most accomplished work yet. A two-hander with full concentration on riveting stage actress Kseniya Kutepova, pic uses the lightest of touches to plumb its emotional and physical landscape, forming a duet that plays out in a largely dialogue-free, elegantly lensed ode to independence. Winner of multiple awards last year at the Moscow and Cottbus fests, pic could easily become a pet fave of Euro arthouse auds.

An accomplished low-angle shot of a train passing through a bleak peasant landscape cuts to reveal a woman catching up with a wafting red balloon. The slavish young wife of a much older man, Natalia (Kutepova) wears a deadened expression as she milks their one cow, surrounded by the dairy products they sell to trains that slow down by their crumbling home. When her husband/overlord drops dead, she unemotionally brings his body to church, met on the road by brash, sexual Sergey (Dmitri Dyuzhev).

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On her way back home she picks up a mirror, which helmer Storozheva substitutes for the camera as Natalia inspects her naked body, aware for the first time of her own attractions. When Sergey turns up looking for some action, she’s not averse to a little romp.

Gradually casting aside her dead husband’s physical presence, she sells the cow, a symbol of her bondage, and returns with a goat similar to one she remembered from her orphanage. Gorgeous but unflashy images follow: Natalia in an electric handcart, returning from town wearing a wedding dress whose flowing veil becomes a visual embodiment of freedom. Later, a sequence of the laughing, glowing woman on a swing carousel, the sun on her face, perfectly captures her late blossoming.

Natalia comes to enjoy her relationship with Sergey. However, when he offers to buy her a cow and suggests they set up house together, she sets off in a rowboat, accompanied by her newly acquired stray dog, goat and that red balloon, heading slowly down the river.

As in her first feature “Sky. Plane. Girl.,” Storozheva presents a woman who at first appears to be empty inside but is revealed as a strongly liberated figure. Though unsophisticated, Natalia is no fool, and her journey toward self-realization becomes a joyous trip of discovery. Kutepova, resembling a young Tilda Swinton, is radiant.

Period is barely signaled: If not for a scene of Natalia cutting out current celebrity photos from glossy magazines, pic could just as well be set in 1967 as 2007. Frequent shots of passing trains suggest an awareness of environments beyond her limited horizon, worlds she finally enters on her own terms as she eschews the railroad for the river. Kutepova makes nods to Fellini — as when Natalia, in an incongruous red velvet pantsuit, mingles with a group of eccentric train passengers — but understands the emotion she’s evoking rather than just making a simple copy.

Cinematographer Oleg Lukichev, Alexey Guerman Jr.’s regular collab, strikes gold with his richly textured camerawork, whether gently soaring crane shots or beautifully framed fixed compositions. Color is all-important: both the wintry, brownish-gray landscape slowly awakening to spring and the startling hues of Natalia’s new wardrobe. Ilya Shipilov’s understated piano-and-string score ideally captures the tone.

Traveling With Pets

Russia

  • Production: A Studio Slon, Profit Film production. (International sales: Slon, Moscow.) Produced by Sabina Eremeeva, Igor Tolstunov. Directed by Vera Storozheva. Screenplay, Arkady Krasilshchikov.
  • Crew: Camera (color, widescreen), Oleg Lukichev; editor, Vincent Deyveaux; music, Ilya Shipilov; production designer, Igor Kotsarev; sound (Dolby Digital), Andrey Khudjakov. Reviewed at Tromso Film Festival (Horizon East), Norway, Jan. 16, 2008. (Also in 2007 Moscow Film Festival -- competing, Cottbus Film Festival -- competing.) Running time: 97 MIN.
  • With: <b>With:</b> Kseniya Kutepova, Dmitri Dyuzhev, Anna Mikhalkova.
  • Music By: