Truth proves more cinematic than fiction in vet documentarian Jerzy Sladkowski’s “The Vodka Factory.” The mesmerizing story of Valentina Barabina, a single mother fiercely setting her sights on stardom in Moscow to escape the dead-end Russian boondocks, plays like the best kind of narrative moviemaking; the presence of the camera and the filmmaker’s outsider p.o.v. seem to heighten the awareness of all involved, imparting an edge of desperation, bitterness and fanatical hope to the proceedings. By turns moving, hilarious and horrific, this powerhouse docu could score in theatrical release.
Barabina and her young son, Danilo, live in the Russian town of Zhiguljovsk with her long-suffering mother, Tatiana Pronina, who works as a bus conductor. Taking shameless advantage of her mom’s fondness for the kid, tarted-up Barabina will unexpectedly show up and dump him on the bus for hours while she trips off to acting lessons or belly-dancing classes.
Barabina plans on leaving her little boy in her mother’s care while she chases her thespian dreams in the capital. But Pronina harbors dreams of her own, having received a love letter from a former flame she hasn’t seen in 30 years. Sladkowski even captures their first surprise meeting on the bus, their bashful exchange of confidences punctuated by fare collections. For Pronina, rearing her grandson would mean renouncing her newborn hope for companionship.
Mother and daughter have much in common, both having divorced drunken abusive men. Indeed, alcohol is apparently the fuel that keeps Zhiguljovsk running; in addition to giving the film a catchy title, it provides employment for most of the town’s women, who bottle vodka by day and consume it by night.
Barabina herself works in the factory, and Sladkowski shoots several scenes there as she interacts with female co-workers (men are largely conspicuous by their absence). The women gossip and offer unsolicited critiques of Barabina’s acting chops, condemn her heartlessness in abandoning her son and predict her sordid downfall in the big city, the rhythm of their conversation counterpointing their practiced assembly-line moves. When the women congregate at night in one another’s houses, rancor and despair flow as freely as the vodka, as they defiantly admit infidelity or express raw hatred for their offspring.
In this context, Barabina’s naive belief in her own talent registers as less delusional than desperate. Indeed, despite her plump, mascara-heavy appearance, there is something touching in her single-minded desire for transcendence. In her acting tutorial, she wrestles with a text, frustrating her teacher with a lack of imagination or empathy that makes her unable to rephrase written lines. Yet she has chosen a role that ironically mirrors her own; as she emotes for her tutor and for Sladkowski’s camera, her struggle to connect with her self-centered emotions creates its own poignant authenticity.
Tech credits are superb.