Russian film-maker Slava Ross’ second feature-film “Siberia, Monamour”, as the title suggests, is set in the monumental background of the region’s high mountains, dense forests, and wild rivers. There are enough shots to make us admire the landscape’s postcard beauty. But, unlike the romanticized viewpoint of Taiga we get to see in Soviet Union or other Western films, “Monamour”, a fictional little village made up for the film in the Taiga region, is an impoverished area, where life is on the verge of getting choked out by natural and man-made cruelty. While western Siberia with its rich oil patch and modern cities like Khanty Mansiysk is thriving, the eastern Siberia is emphasized as place of gloominess. In the film’s opening scene, pack of rabid wolf-dogs ravenously eats upon its prey, signalling the arrival of an uncontrollable evil into the region.
An old man (Pyotr Zaichenko) and his small grandson Lyoshka (Mikhail Protsko) living in the abandoned little village are already fighting for their survival against the unforgiving nature. Winter is coming, food supply is sparse, and they are surviving with goat’s milk. There’s some game to hunt, which is threatened by the feral wolf-dogs. The old man is hopelessly waiting for his son’s return (and little Lyoshka too believes in father’s return) from the army. Lyoshka’s mother is dead. The old man being a fierce believer in religion often commands his grandson to perform the prayer duties. In another story-line, there’s Yura (Sergey Novikov), Lyoshka’s uncle, and his cantankerous wife Anna. They are living in a nearby village and finding it hard to feed their own three daughters. Yura is about to drive his horse-cart to ‘Monamour’ to convince the old man to at least send Lyoshka with him.
Anna is totally against Yura’s decision and she even confiscates the little food he tries to take the little boy. There’s not much communication within the family and once Yura goes away, Anna has her rendezvous with a lover. In the third plot-line, a battle-weary army captain (Nikolay Kozak) returned from Caucasus war, accompanied with a rookie soldier (Maksim Emelyanov) travel to the town for bringing a prostitute to the military commander. The captain feels disgusted by this mission and on his way to the town meets Yura. They both have a drink, a friendly talk, and go on to meet their different fates. The captain finds a young girl (Lidiya Bairashevskay) from the local whorehouse and while taking her back to the barracks, we witness the captain’s sleazy persona. Guided by the need to eradicate emotional pain, guilt or at least to survive, the three plot-line intermingles.
It is not easy to watch “Siberia, Monamour” as its hopeless tone and emotionally stunning depiction of human degradation makes us wince with inner pain. The highly corrupt and disintegrating humanity and power structures reminisces us of Aleksei Balabanov’s “Cargo 200” – one of the most disturbing films I have ever seen. The treacherous con men, prostitution ring, hate for Chechen Muslims, sexual violence, unfaithful wives and the crushing poverty are some of the recurring elements in the Post-Soviet Union movies. Such inclusion of elements in a slightly stereotypical way endangers the narrative to devolve into melodrama. However, the characters (especially that of army captain) advances from just being ‘types’ and helps us to form an emotional engagement. While the last minute coincidence in the narrative works against its naturalistic tone, such things diffuse the proceedings with much-needed dose redemption. The metaphors involving wild dogs and the religious icon are less nuanced in its depictions, but there are some truly brilliant visual flourishes from director Slava Ross. For example, during the climax, we see the tired old man lying near side of the road, against the background of stone-made hammer and sickle. It seems to represent the all-conquering dream of Soviet Union, which lays waste in front of relentless Siberian atmosphere. The random attacks of the wild dogs are also well-staged and juxtaposed alongside the evil faced by indefensible characters (the way captain drags the young girl into the woods seem like one vile, random attack from feral dog). The ending might feel too neat, and the salvation easily achieved, as that kind of forced hope only provides cinematic relief from the persistent suffering, endured by this region’s people.
“Siberia, Monamour” (104 minutes) looks into Siberia’s harsh natural conditions and sociopolitical agonies inflicted upon the local people, which is otherwise often portrayed as an exotic territory. It’s definitely one of the touching and thought-provoking Russian social drama.