At first glance, Aleksey German, Jr.’s House Arrest is a satire aimed squarely at Russian state repression and censorship. David (Merab Ninidze), a University professor, awaits trial under house arrest, accused of embezzling state funds intended for an academic conference. The charges are trumped up, or else entirely fictitious, and have more to do with social media posts David made accusing the mayor of theft and corruption using information leaked to him by his estranged wife’s lover. His health is failing, his family falling apart and, occasionally, thugs break into his apartment to assault him or worse. But German is not satisfied with mere portraiture of a whistleblower against the system. Instead, he reserves some antipathy for the prickly David, a man whose outsized obstinance and moral certitude push everyone around him to the side. Put bluntly, he’s a pain in the ass, a righteous curmudgeon who sees himself as a crusader when really he’s just a fly, agitating but relatively unimportant, causing trouble by posting drawings of the mayor fucking an ostrich.
No matter the scale of his campaign or his self-regard, David is a victim of the state, and House Arrest asks us to acknowledge the messy truths that not all righteous thinkers and activists are good hangs without complication. Most of the time, German keeps his camera tight on David, forcing intimacy with the viewer and allowing the clutter of his apartment to fence him in. The people that come in and out of his abode — his mother, his wife, his lawyer, his doctor — can’t see why David has to keep agitating as his case increasingly takes a toll on each of their lives. His doctor insists she’ll be able to treat him better if he simply confesses and takes probation, and he’s told that in prison, he’d at least be able to shower, something his ankle bracelet currently prevents. His idealistic students who visit outside his home are more hip to the cause, but also far less affected by his actions. As dramatic incidents slowly pile up and push House Arrest toward its ending, the relative smallness of his struggle dawns on David, further compounding his grief. Even if he is to go free, he won’t have accomplished much, and the cost of his house arrest is already immeasurable and irreversible. Ultimately, for David, that he might be denied martyrdom is as unsatisfactory a possibility as any pyrrhic victory won in the courts.
Published as part of Cannes Film Festival 2021 — Dispatch 7.