The term “forced assimilation” has a violence encoded into it that brutalizes the bleak heart of Vladimir Munkuev’s “Nuuccha,” a meticulously re-created if unevenly dramatized portrait of the hardships and humiliations suffered by the indigenous peoples of Eastern Siberia’s Yakutia region in the waning years of the Russian Empire. Based on a short story by Wacław Sieroszewski, the film is most effective when its narrow focus on a single, desperately poor Yakut couple allows it space to be fascinated by the straightforward ethnographic details of this little-seen time and place. But its value as human drama wanes as its allegorical impulses become more insistent and the characters are reduced to ciphers in the end, more important for what they represent than for who they are.
At the compelling outset, however, Habji (Pavel Kolesov), a Yakut peasant living isolated even from the small village where the rest of the locals reside, and his wife Keremes (Irina Mikhaylova), represent nothing but themselves — as well as their grief for their second dead baby and the extraordinary physical difficulties of eking out a living from this forbidding land. Even though this is the surprisingly warm and relatively verdant Siberian summer, the traps Habji lays in the forest remain unsprung and the baskets he dredges from the lake are empty of fish. The local shaman performs a ritual, but declares it useless as the forest and water spirits have simply abandoned this place. “I’ve forgotten the taste of meat,” says Keremes.
Their prospects looking dire, Habji makes a trip to the village to beg for work or food from the Yakut chief (Innokenty Lukovtsev), a petty tyrant whose own outspoken mother (Zoya Bagynanova) is deeply critical of his obsequience to the Russian authorities. Yakutia, the ancestral homeland of this semi-nomadic minority — once “a handsome and proud people,” according to their folk songs — is now being used as a place of exile for enemies of the Tsarist regime: “We are living in Russia’s prison,” says the old woman, scathingly. Instead of offering to help Habji, the chief orders him to accommodate one such Russian political prisoner, Kostya (Sergei Gilev), so Habji returns to Keremes not only without their much-needed supplies, but with an extra mouth to feed.
The dynamic between these three, living in a clearing deep in a virtually impassable forest, is at first drawn with great intricacy. Between Kostya and Habji, who speaks Russian from his time as an enlistee, an uneasy, tacit truce is struck, as the demands of their imminent survival trump other considerations. Keremes, who is illiterate and speaks only Yakut, remains coldly wary of the unwelcome newcomer: “Bony and stinky” is her verdict on Kostya.
That all changes — rather too abruptly — when Habji is again called back to the village by the chief, and Keremes is left alone to nurse a gravely ill Kostya, who unexpectedly rallies under her care, and starts to look on the hut, and on Keremes herself, as territory ripe for colonization. In a galling showdown, it’s made clear that even the lowest Russian prisoner can consider himself superior to the highest Indigenous chief, and entitled simply to take that which will not be freely given.
It’s appropriate that the forlorn animal from which Keremes gets their precious milk supply is their last cow. Munkuev’s debut feature, with its decaying masculine relationships, its focus on the colonized rather than the colonizers and its setting at the end rather than the beginning of an era of expansion, could almost be the mirror-image inverse of Kelly Reichardt’s “First Cow.” But Reichardt’s film never lost sight of its human characters for their symbolic value, and as “Nuuccha” (which is the name they give to Kostya, simply meaning “Russian”) devolves into a grim procession of rape, subjugation and literal occupation, it’s too easy to become emotionally disconnected from the horrors, in favor of parsing their application to the bigger picture.
Still, Munkuev, who is himself Yakut, does deliver some truly illuminating sequences here, further elevated by Denis Klebleev’s somber, starkly beautiful photography. In scoreless, absorbed takes we watch Habji’s quick fingers setting a rabbit trap, or his strong torso twist as he swings a scythe; we see Keremes adding cultures to milk to make suorat (a type of yogurt), or pulling huge sods of turf from the forest floor to insulate the hut against the coming winter. At one point, we observe a euthanasia ritual that is too bizarre to be a fiction, involving an open grave, an intricate ceremonial outfit and what looks like a cow’s intestinal membrane stretched ghoulishly over the head. There is authenticity in these scenes, but also an artistry and a mystery that is beguiling and singular and suggests there are many more songs Munkuev can sing of this handsome, proud people and their stolen world.