Two meteorologists stationed in the Arctic desert discover that the weather isn’t the only thing that can be petrifying in Russian helmer Alexei Popogrebsky’s majestic drama “How I Ended This Summer.” Popogrebsky’s second solo outing starts off at near-glacial pace and then rolls to a suspenseful boil without ever resorting to cheap thriller tricks. Even better, there’s none of the faux-spiritual claptrap or obscurantist symbolism that undermines too many Russian art films; pic just works as a terrific exploration of human fragility. Nevertheless, given auds’ usual permafrost of indifference to Slavic fare, “Summer” will be a tough sell offshore.
Contempo-set tale unfolds at a weather station located on an island in Chukotka, Russia’s most northerly and eastern autonomous region. Even though it’s summer, the island’s two sole temporary residents — long-serving technician Sergei (Sergei Puskepalis, who starred in Popogrebsky’s “Simple Things”), and fresh-from-college newbie Pavel (newcomer Grigory Dobrygin) — still need plenty of warm clothing when they go out to take readings from the instruments they monitor. Their only lifeline to civilization is a two-way radio they use to phone in their data.
Crotchety Sergei and puppyish Pavel have little in common. When not working, the former likes to go fishing for Arctic trout, while the latter prefers to listen to his iPod or play shoot-’em-up computer games. As the first act slowly unfolds, interspersed with outdoor scenes that establish the bleakness of the surroundings, Sergei briskly explains how easy it is for men to go mad up there, pointing out the bullet holes in the ceiling.
When Sergei cuts out for a few days to go fishing, Pavel is left in charge. A call comes in from the base station with a terrible message: Sergei’s wife and young son have been killed in accident. Pavel is instructed to give Sergei the carefully dictated message and then leave him alone while they await a ship that will come to collect him. But when Sergei gets back, Pavel can’t bring himself to be the bearer of such bad tidings.
Weak-willed Pavel continues to keep his secret, hoping he can leave the job of telling Sergei what’s happened to the rescue team. But when Sergei goes AWOL again, the base station furiously orders Pavel to find Sergei and bring him back, necessitating a dangerous journey into polar-bear territory. A surprising psychological twist in the last act racks up the anything-can-happen-now anxiety.
As he did in “Simple Things,” Popogrebsky deploys lots of cutaways to small, telling details and closeups to create intimacy, but this time they’re interspersed with extreme long-distance shots (filmed on a wide-angle lens) that make figures seem even more tiny and fragile as they trudge through the sublime, treeless, cruelly indifferent landscape. On the strength of this, “Simple Things” and “Koktebel,” Popogrebsky is shaping up into one of Russia’s most talented, distinctive and potentially exportable directors.
In emotional terms, Dobrygin and Puskepalis virtually carry the whole show. Further demonstrating range honed by years in legit, Puskepalis projects just the right mix of vulnerability and suppressed rage to make Sergei look like a bigger threat than the polar bears.
But the pic also offers a breakthrough role for Dobrygin, whose character fluctuates even more widely. The comely young thesp, recently made an overnight star in local hit “Black Lightning,” deploys his dance training and natural agility to spectacular effect here by doing his own stunts, which include rock climbing, wading into the Arctic Ocean and falling down a mountain slope.
Pic’s strong cinematography, done on the Red camera by ace d.p. Pavel Kostomarov (“Simple Things,” “The Stroll”), is virtually indistinguishable from lensing on film stock. The high-resolution format proves a perfect medium for capturing the textures of the island’s sandy soil, as well as the blood-stained flesh of a gutted trout or the characters’ weather-worn skin. Punctuating time-lapse shots show off the natural fireworks displays of changing light and weather shifts; sound and music create a unique landscape of their own throughout.
Pic’s Russian title could just as easily have been translated as “How I Spent the Summer,” although the original Russian is intentionally grammatically incorrect (it should be “Kak ya provel eto leto”) to mimic the poor grammar of a schoolboy.