×

Tokyo Film Review: ‘Sveta’

Non-professional deaf-mute actress Laura Koroleva delivers a remarkable performace in a chlling drama about motherhood and murder.

Director:
Zhanna Issabayeva
With:
Laura Koroleva, Roman Lystsov

1 hour 39 minutes

The last thing anyone would expect in a film about a struggling deaf-mute family facing foreclosure on their apartment is for the mother to decide that murder is the one and only solution. But that’s precisely the case in “Sveta,” a truly disturbing and utterly compelling social horror movie by Kazakh filmmaker Zhanna Issabayeva (“Nagima”). Performed almost exclusively in Russian sign language and featuring a remarkable lead performance by non-professional Laura Koroleva, “Sveta” is bound to make a name for itself on the festival circuit and could possibly find theatrical life with the support of brave distributors.

The inspired casting of Koroleva, whom Issabayeve discovered working in a center for the disabled, plays a vital role in keeping viewers engaged in an unrelentingly bleak story set in a world where human kindness is an extremely scarce commodity. With her striking face and a death stare of almost other-worldly intensity, Sveta’s virtually impossible not to watch, no matter how appalling her actions become.

A foreman at a garment factory staffed by hearing-impaired workers, Sveta is visited by a bank representative and learns through her interpreter (Nataliya Kolesnikova) that she has two weeks to pay mortgage arrears or lose her apartment. Worse news soon follows. The factory manager (Alim Mendybayev) announces that 12 workers and one foreman will be laid off owing to a downturn in business. Despite being the most skilled and qualified member on staff, Sveta loses her job because single mother Valya (Varvara Masyagina) is deemed to be in greater need of the pay check.

Sveta’s fury at the decision and utter contempt for Valya’s situation is just a hint of what’s to come. After she storms out of the factory wearing a low-cut dress and stands on the side of the road it appears Sveta has decided to become a sex worker. Here, and everywhere else, such expectations are subverted. After hailing a taxi, she locates Valya, smashes her head with a rock and calmly steals her money.

Sveta’s ruthless nature extends to the family home. She berates deaf-mute husband, Ruslan (Roman Lystsov), for being weak and ineffectual. The absence of any love between them is clear, but what’s really confronting is Sveta’s attitude toward raising their young son and daughter, also deaf-mutes. “No tenderness,” she barks at Ruslan, as if the slightest compassion might make them weak in a world Sveta views as being only cruel and unjust.

After being re-hired to replace the dying Valya and carrying on as if nothing happened, Sveta sets her sights on guaranteeing her family’s financial security. This time around, she enlists Ruslan to poison his 92-year-old grandmother, thus inheriting her apartment. Sveta may not cry for the death of anyone, but many viewers may shed a tear when Marina (Polina Lungu), the now-orphaned little daughter of Valya, is thrust into Sveta’s care in the film’s devastating final act.

The ice in Sveta’s veins is matched by Issabayeva’s uncompromising screenplay and razor-sharp direction. It’s not until more than an hour has elapsed before Sveta offers a half-smile, and viewers will have to wait until the very final sequence to discover at least something about what makes her cold and calculating mind tick.

Performances from a cast comprised entirely of non-professionals are excellent. The film’s standout technical asset is Mikhail Blintsov’s mobile camera, which frequently films Sveta from directly behind and over her shoulder, making viewers feel like they’re accompanying this immoral creature on her terrible mission of survival at any cost.

Popular on Variety

Tokyo Film Review: ‘Sveta’

Reviewed at Tokyo Film Festival (competing), Oct. 29, 2017. Running time: 99 MIN. (Original title: “Cbeta”)

Production: (Kazakhstan) A Sun Production production. (International sales: Sun Production, Almaty, Kazakhstan.) Producer: Zhanna Issabayeva. Director, screenplay: Zhanna Issabayeva. Camera (color): Mikhail Blintsov. Editor: Azamat Altybasov.

With: Laura Koroleva, Roman Lystsov, Alim Mendybayev, Nataliya Kolesnikova, Varvara Masyagina, Polina Lungu. (Russian sign language, Russian dialogue)

More Film

  • Constance Wu and Jennifer Lopez star

    Jennifer Lopez's 'Criminal' Striptease: How 'Hustlers' Landed the Fiona Apple Hit

    Contrary to what you might be expecting, the number of songs by Jennifer Lopez, Lizzo and Cardi B in “Hustlers,” their newly released acting vehicle, adds up to … zero. Meanwhile, the standout music sync in a movie that’s full of them belongs to no less likely a choice than Fiona Apple. The scene in [...]

  • Game of Thrones Season 8

    'Game of Thrones,' 'Avengers' Win Big at 45th Annual Saturn Awards

    As Jamie Lee Curtis picked up her first trophy ever at the 45th Annual Saturn Awards Friday night, she had a good luck charm on her arm: former manager Chuck Binder, whom she said was the reason she became an actor. “I was in college and had no thought of being an actor,” Curtis told [...]

  • Jennifer Lopez and Constance Wu star

    Box Office: 'Hustlers' Dances Toward $32 Million Opening Weekend

    “Hustlers” is eyeing the biggest opening weekend ever for STXFilms, following a Friday domestic ticket haul of $13.1 million from 3,250 theaters. If estimates hold, the stripper saga could take home around $32 million come Sunday, marking the best live-action opening of Jennifer Lopez’s career. “Hustlers” follows a group of former strip club dancers, led [...]

  • Hustlers intimacy coordinator

    Meet the Stripper Consultant Who Gave 'Hustlers' Authenticity, Dignity and Sexual Freedom

    At last week’s Toronto Film Festival premiere of “Hustlers,” an audience of Hollywood heavyweights and Canadian locals applauded as a statuesque woman strutted on stage, rocking six-inch platform heels and a pastel tie-dye bodysuit. This adoration was not for stars Jennifer Lopez, Constance Wu or Keke Palmer, nor was it for the film’s acclaimed writer-director [...]

  • Kristen Stewart

    French Director Olivier Assayas Pays Tribute to Kristen Stewart at Deauville

    French director Olivier Assayas paid tribute to Kristen Stewart, whom he directed in “Clouds of Sils Maria” and “Personal Shopper,” at the Deauville American Film Festival on Friday evening. Stewart received a honorary award in Deauville before the French premiere of Benedict Andrews’s “Seberg” in which the actress stars as Jean Seberg, a French New [...]

  • Liam Gallagher: As It Was

    Film Review: 'Liam Gallagher: As It Was'

    Liam Gallagher is nearly as fascinating a rock ‘n’ roll figure as he thinks he is … which is saying a lot. After the breakup of Oasis, one of the most self-avowedly arrogant stars in pop culture found himself severely humbled, fighting to become relevant again without the help of Noel, his ex-bandmate and, for [...]

  • The Vast of Night

    Toronto Film Review: 'The Vast of Night'

    It’s the first high school basketball game of the season and all of Cayuga, N.M., population 492, is cheering on the Statesmen at the gym. Except for the town’s two brightest kids, Everett (Jake Horowitz) and Fay (Sierra McCormick), who are strolling through the empty darkness to their respective jobs as a radio DJ and [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content