Whatever you might be expecting from a documentary with the eye-catching title of “Tarzan’s Testicles,” it’s unlikely to be quite what you get with Alexandru Solomon’s disquieting, strange and peculiarly philosophical film. As an outsider venturing into the little-known and only partially recognized state of Abkhazia, the Romanian director approaches his already outlandish subject — an institute in the capital city of Sukhumi where monkeys and apes are bred for live medical experimentation — from an evocative remove. Without over-reliance on exposition, Abkhazia’s fascinating and all-pervasive recent history can be gleaned piecemeal from inferences and digressions, while mainly the film prowls through the corridors and cages of Sukhumi’s “Institute of Experimental Pathology and Therapy,” exploring much broader ideas about man’s bestial nature and the divide between faith and science.
For those of us unaware of Abkhazia’s story (and possibly of the country’s very existence, tucked away on the eastern coast of the Black Sea), the lack of hand-holding can give a jarring sense of parallel reality to the proceedings. We’re dropped in medias res into the Institute, which is also open to tourists, and in which the centerpiece is a large statue of a particularly fertile baboon, proudly announced by a tour guide to be the only statue to the primate heroes (victims) of scientific experimentation in the world.
The rest of the Institute looks like a dismal zoo, with bare, unadorned cages housing monkeys and apes of all different sizes and in various states of lethargy and decrepitude — miserable, emaciated prisoners for the most part. Indoors, the scene is even more disconcerting (the film in general will prove a very hard watch for animal lovers). Here, the handlers and the scientists administering injections of experimental drug treatments go about their business with a matter-of-fact, lo-fi efficiency that borders on the barbaric. But at the same time, the caretakers talk in sentimental terms about their charges: There’s the woman who is fostering a baby monkey who was rejected by its mother, and another who insists that she will save her own favorite, Mitya, from experimentation.
All this unfolds in DP Radu Gorgos’ coolly detatched, faintly sardonic photography, with a sense of wry detachment complemented by some pointed cuts from editor Sophie Reiter. Gradually we also begin to learn a little about the Institute’s nine-decade history, particularly in segments in which footage from the Stalin era and the Sputnik missions (whose space monkeys were its “graduates”) is projected as a ghostly flicker into lab rooms littered with test tubes, centrifuges and paperwork. The Institute was established in 1927, and its founder Ivanov comes across as a character straight out of H. G. Wells, a Russian Dr. Moreau whose abiding obsession was to create an ape-human hybrid (there were even assertions that the famous Yeti was a result of his cross-breeding experiments in the Russian gulag).
But even this is only half the fascinating story that elliptically unfolds in this demanding but rewarding, multilayered film. One might notice early on the odd detail that the majority of the Institute’s employees — both scientists and zookeepers — are women. And while no explicit explanation is given, gradually more of the voiceover interviews start to refer to “the war,” by which they mean the conflict of 1992-’93, during which, as a group of veterans proudly state, the tiny Abkhaz population of 100,000 drove off the forces from Georgia, a country of 4 million.
This devastating conflict not only decimated the population but also saw atrocities occur on both sides: There is the sense that a place and a people so acquainted with human-on-human cruelty might well have little compassion left for animals. Indeed, one of the scientists talks with barely concealed disgust about how primates are the only creatures, aside from humans, who kill for no discernible reason, as though that in itself justified their being put to scientific use.
Yet even the idea of sacrifice for the scientific good is complicated. Azbakhia’s population seems to follow the opposite path of many more developed nations in that the older people raised under communism are the ones who reject the Church, while the younger generation appears to be turning back to it — culminating in a jaw-dropping scene in which the young student scientists at the Institute reveal they do not believe in Darwin’s theory of evolution. “I refuse to believe I was ever an ape” says one, with an incredulous smirk.
By the end, the Institute has become an exemplar of Abkhazia itself, an uncanny microcosm reflecting a jumble of conflicting dichotomies — old and new, scientific and religious, kind and cruel, proud and pitiful, forward-thinking and backward-looking — that can somehow co-exist within the same space, or even the same person. “Tarzan’s Testicles” quietly but forcefully suggests not only that it’s possible to live on the front line of the war between such opposing forces, but actually that maybe that’s all human beings are: sentient monkeys who somehow developed the ability to live in a state of ongoing paradox.