Sergei Loznitsa’s documentaries are conceived as silent commentary: His rigorously edited, coolly composed shots contain all the information needed for viewers to feel the weight of his argument. By contrast, his fiction films (“My Joy,” “In the Fog”) play with storytelling in a freewheeling way, combining narrative and cinematic audacity in scenes that shift from the sublime to the phantasmagoric.
After five years of canonical nonfiction from the director, it’s something of a shock to watch “A Gentle Creature,” a dense, nightmarish feature that takes aim at Russia’s befouled soul, in which a nameless woman tries to learn why the package she mailed to her prisoner husband was returned without explanation. Her hellish journey through a society stripped of humanity forms a challenging, at times darkly humorous and ultimately eviscerating vision of surrealistic nihilism that’s unmistakably Russian in style and bleakness: For Loznitsa, it’s too late to talk of a heart of darkness, because while everyone was sleeping, that heart seems to have disappeared entirely.
Though the film takes its title from the Dostoevsky short story of the same name, this is by no means an adaptation (the way Robert Bresson’s 1969 film was). In fact, they share nothing in common apart from the clear irony both author and filmmaker intended by using such a title. Shooting would have been impossible in Russia, so the production took place in the Latvian town of Daugavpils, which has a 90% Russian population with, conveniently, a large Soviet-era prison ideal for Loznitsa’s purposes. As for the time period, the director deliberately keeps it vague: Both the setting and design feel mid-to-late Soviet, but cell phones and computers suggest this is meant to be now, even though streets retain their Soviet-era names, and a large bust of Lenin presides over the town.
When the care package the nameless “gentle creature” (Vasilina Makovtseva) sent to her jailed husband comes back stamped “return to sender,” she wants to know why. At the crowded post office, she’s refused an explanation by the unhelpful clerk (Larisa Simonova) and is ill-treated by the people around her — one tubercular man (Piotr Plečken) even threatens to cough in her face. Verbally abused for carrying the parcel on a jam-packed bus, the woman overhears a conversation about a horrific dismemberment as if it’s a normal piece of gossip, and everyone is quick with a barb against their fellow passengers.
Traveling to the jail where she believes her husband is serving his unspecified sentence (“prisons help people live,” says her cabbie, in one of many Orwellian lines), she’s once again stone-walled by bureaucratic resistance, unable even to confirm whether her husband is still there. A great scene shows what happens to care packages that do get through: Each item is poked, slashed or torn apart in a willfully destructive manner that has nothing to do with security and everything to do with power and humiliation.
Worn down by such a demoralizing system and told it could be days before she gets any answers, the “gentle creature” is relieved when local woman Zinka (Marina Kleshcheva) offers to rent her a room for cheap. Yet her house is a raucous scene of blustery drunks, their ruddy fleshiness and loud voices contrasting with the protagonist’s bird-like, tight-jawed features and exhausted silence. Loznitsa’s great cinematographer Oleg Mutu shoots this like a Russian version of a 17th century Dutch genre painting, congested with destabilizing, boisterous vulgarity all crowded toward the edge of the picture plane.
The nightmare continues as the woman is confronted by prison guards, threatening security services and shady criminals. While telling her “we all help each other here,” soldiers barely look outside their car’s windshield when someone is savagely beaten by a couple of men; a cheap prostitute is dropped off at her incongruously turreted fairy-tale home, protected by gates and a large Hummer parked out front. Even the human-rights activist the woman visits (Lia Akhedzhakova, “Playing the Victim,” never better) is too distracted to help, overwhelmed by a pressing case involving a woman subjected to an invasive body-cavity search.
Loznitsa offers no respite for his protagonist, no genuinely altruistic hand, since his vision of Russia is one where links between people have atrophied like so much scorbutic cartilage, and all that’s left is bone clashing against bone. The director acknowledges the influences of Dostoevsky and biting 19th-century satirist Mikhail Saltykov-Shchedrin, though naturally Kafka also springs to mind, along with other visions of dystopian societies. But the real hallucinatory sequence comes toward the end, when the woman is taken by troika to a wooden house straight out of a Rimsky-Korsakov opera, where earlier characters dressed in the Russian flag’s red and white appear at an official banquet declaiming the sort of patriotic double-speak that would induce one of Sergei Lavrov’s knowing sardonic smiles.
The woman’s nightmare isn’t over; it will never truly be over, because while she’s denied even a glimmer of shared humanity, her fellow citizens are asleep, numbed to the dehumanization around them. “A Gentle Creature” is Loznitsa’s cri de cœur, exhausted and exhausting. His portrait of Russia at the Revolution’s centenary depicts a civil society that collapsed long ago and whose citizens are too shattered to care. The film beguiles with its bravura but it’s a deliberately punishing journey, made by a male Cassandra impelled to point out his nation’s destruction yet sadly aware that it’s too late to change the tide of history.
By now, Loznitsa and Mutu have created a visual style distinctly their own (one wouldn’t confuse this with one of Mutu’s Romanian films). The oppression surrounding the unsmiling Makovtseva is constantly reinforced by tightly shot scenes of claustrophobic intensity, the camera unable to find an escape from the crowd. The shift into dreamlike territory at the end marks a stylistic break as well, where harsh lighting and a sense of folklore in the service of fascism opens up the space but remains just as stifling.