An unhappily married young woman who can’t quite bring herself to change her life finds that fate has a way of intervening in “The Gulls,” a powerfully atmospheric but narratively understated debut that nevertheless marks Russian helmer-writer Ella Manzheeva as a talent to watch. Manzheeva sets the minimalistic action in her homeland, Kalmykia, a Russian republic where Buddhism is the primary religion and most of the population is of Asiatic descent. Curiosity about the first feature from the region in more than 25 years should keep “The Gulls” deservedly in flight on the fest and cinematheque circuit.
Beautiful, delicate Elza (model Evgeniya Mandzhieva, making her first bigscreen appearance) teaches piano to tots in Lagan, a remote village on the shore of the Caspian Sea. Her coarse husband, Dzhiga (Sergei Adianov), is a fisherman and small-time criminal. Dzhiga’s mother (Liubov Ubushieva) disapproves of the childless Elza and wishes that her son would divorce her. But his handsome younger brother, Ulan (Evgeniy Sangadzhiev), who works in the capital city of Elista, seems to harbor a secret crush on his willowy sister-in-law.
Like many others in Lagan, Elza and Dzhiga lead a hardscrabble life. But Dzhiga’s family is about to celebrate an engagement, and he needs extra money to contribute to the dowry. To obtain it, he plans to do some off-season fishing, during an unpredictable weather period and at a time that local authorities are cracking down on this illegal activity. When wannabe village big man Ledzhin (Dmitry Mukeev) gets trapped in a police sting and informs on Dzhiga and his friend Batyr (Andrey Oskanov), Elza finds herself unexpectedly free and able to reconsider her views on life, happiness and freedom.
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Although the visuals register more strongly than the wispy story elements, Manzheeva and her cinematographer husband, Alexander Kuznetsov, wisely refrain from over-aestheticizing the locations. In Lagan, the weather dominates the population’s everyday life; in the winter, the water may freeze at any time, bringing out an anxiety in the families of the fishermen that comes through strongly. The wind, fog, water, ice and frozen ground also correspond to Elza’s emotional state.
At a time in which the Kalmyk language is experiencing a rebirth, “The Gulls” also takes a realistic look at Kalmyk culture, showing the traditional ways surviving alongside modern technology. At the engagement celebration, the older women perform time-honored songs as the younger women wait on the guests and the young husbands sit in the kitchen, drinking and texting. Dreams and auguries also play an important role in Kalmyk life. Moreover, the film’s title derives from a Kalmyk belief that gulls represent the souls of dead fishermen.
The cast reps a mix of professional actors and amateurs. The graceful Mandzhieva is so effortlessly beautiful that is easy to see why Elza inspires the lust of men other than her husband, and the jealousy of the women. However, she isn’t always able to clearly communicate her character’s thoughts or feelings. Fortunately, emotion is at the heart of composer Anton Silaev’s gripping, processed noise-based score.
While the wintry landscape exteriors are mainly gray and white, the interiors created by art director Denis Bauer utilize a color scheme derived from the palette of a Buddist temple, mixing pastels with bright primary colors. Amid the strong tech package, the only element that strikes a wrong note is Elza’s refined-looking wardrobe: With her soft, gorgeous, two-toned scarves and beautifully fitting coats, she looks different from any of the other local femme characters, as if she could leave the Ketchenery settlement for the catwalk at any moment without a problem.