The scars of Chechnya mark the bodies, minds and destinies of the young men and women at the center of “Once Upon a Time in the Provinces,” Katya Shagalova’s contemporary saga of provincial apathy. On the surface, nothing seems particularly Chekhovian about this group of twentysomething proles who drink, fight and screw their days away. Yet the atmosphere of febrile discontent that hangs over the town feels eerily familiar; factory workers and generals’ daughters replace Chekhov’s aristocrats and military men, while skinheads sub for the encroaching peasants. Downbeat pic, which won the Fipresci prize in Moscow, is prime fest fare.
Pic’s title reps an unlikely tip of the shapka to Sergio Leone and his group portrait of disaffected street kids in “Once Upon a Time in America.” Lacking Leone’s epic sweep (and his humor), Shagalova suggests a certain distance, sometimes conveyed via overhead or long shots, from the fevered excesses of her meller plotlines. And where Leone allowed sudden glimpses of larger historical forces just outside the intense personal intrigue, nothing lies beyond Shagalova’s horizon. An outsider’s peculiar vantage only makes more apparent the characters’ stagnation.
Nastia (Yulia Peresild), the once-popular teen star of a television series, arrives unannounced in the (fictional) factory town of Uletova, hoping to live with her sister, Vera (Elvira Bolgova), and Vera’s husband, Koyla (Aleksandr Golubev), despite the fact that Koyla loathes Nastia: It was Nastia’s denunciation of Vera’s affair with a lowly soldier that led to Koyla’s deployment to Chechnya, where he was gravely wounded. Now, two surgical procedures later, he still suffers from blinding headaches and bouts of uncontrollable rage, resulting in violent attacks on his slavishly besotted wife.
Koyla hangs out with three war buddies: Kim (Aidys Shoigu), Tasoev (Aleksandr Skotnikov) and Misha (Leonid Bichevin). Together the carousers spend their time beating up skinheads and raising glasses of vodka to the words that heralded their demobilization — “The nightmare is over, a new life has begun” — except that no one envisions what that new life might entail beyond drinking to forget the old one. The women cluster around their men, their children and each other, embroiled in patterns of unrequited passion. Kim loves Vera, who loves Koyla, who loves Kim’s mother-in-law, Lena (Lyubov Tolkalina), whose alcoholic teenage daughter (Natalya Soldatova) is married to Kim but sleeping with Tasoev, while Nastia loves Misha.
In the face of this obsessive round-robin of emotional eruptions, a tranquil couple from the Caucasus wonder if their serenity feels as alien to the Russians as the Russians’ alternately generous, brutal and sentimental impulses seem to them.