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.