Balagov’s debut proves a heady look at individualism, but one ultimately less substantive than it initially suggests.
Tribal frictions unfurl, both combative and internalized, when a young Jewish couple is abducted in the Kabardino-Balkarian Republic, a space in which resides a plethora of cultural groups all burdened by the memory of genocide, confronted by images of further ethnic violences that surround them; these barbarities are all proximally near, yet on screen transpire on such a passive medium as a television across the room. Director Kantemir Balagov, operating rather methodically, assembles a dwindling character piece, ensuring steady attention is given, while keeping gesture and action broad enough to allow for the interpolation of an observant indignation, which rests on the aforementioned hostility. Such abrasion is at its strongest when scrutinizing the rebellion of our protagonist, Ila (Darya Zhovner), who would defy her parents, shaming them in the community, and casting a very complicated post-WWII history into the movements of their Jewish household. After all, this is a sphere where cultural alienation determines the arrangement of loyalty.
Closeness relishes this question of fidelity, and how far the concept can be pushed before one is confronted with the concession of their individuality, for the sake of a collective, the family, and the unpliable expectations of normalized prejudices set in the favour of relinquishing certain liberties. How does one reconcile these decisions? This is a question bombastically handled. Balagov’s weakness lies in how much emphasis he places on the momentum of acute, palpable gesticulation, the interactions of characters so closely intermingling, suffocating under the constraints that the frame forces them within. From gesture to gesture, relationships build until interrupted by emphatic dramatics, which is ultimately the untethering of the work, transparently rendering these observed folk, their woes our wonder, their perpetuating diaspora a kind of non-entity in this play of curt animosities and hazy loves. The film bookends with intertitles that position Balagov as spectator, as second-hand storyteller. This postitionality aptly extends to the film: it finds intrigue only in movements and not in their implications, histories, or guilt.
Published as part of May 2020’s Before We Vanish.