Confession (Povinnost) (1998)

[31 March 2005]

By Tim O'Neil

Thaw

Alexander Sokurov’s Confession is like no other movie you will ever see. Visceral and at times brutal, it’s a livid illustration of the effects of monotony and oppression on the spirit. More than anything else, this haunting film presents a world of unremitting bleakness, a world of suppressed desires and unspoken despair.

Confession is also specifically Russian. No other nation has been so bound to the concept of fatalism as a way of life, and this portrait of oblivion on the edge of the Arctic circle captures it. The film stands resolutely in the tradition of Russia’s massive literary achievements (see also, Dostoyevski and Solzhenitsyn), but whereas the literary tradition allows for copious internal explication, Sokurov’s cinematic eye renders the epic scope of the Russian character as a vast and opaque emotional wilderness.

Lacking even a rudimentary structure, Confession presents a documentary-like sequence of unnumbered days in the life of an unnamed Commander (played with resolutely minimal shadings by Serguei Bakai) as his ship embarks for a tour of the Arctic seas. These days are uneventful in the most profound manner. The only form given to the darkness (only 10 minutes of sunlight per day) is the monotony of military life, which consists of sleeping, eating, and cleaning. The film includes no subplots or distinctive characters, just groups of soldiers doing the same thing over and over again. The ship stops to deliver coal to a distant outpost. Sailors peeling potatoes and thaw out another military outpost, long since abandoned to the frigid wastes. The only real “event” in the entire movie is the influx of a few dozen new conscripts, but even the novelty of new faces is offset by the numbing routine of seeing dozens of nearly identical and silent Russian teenagers submit to invasive inspections for lice and venereal disease.

Through it all, we are privy to the Commander’s experience of this soul-crushing repetition. He is proud to be an officer but ashamed by the impotence of his post, spending long days on the bridge staring into the distant foggy sea and memorizing passages from Chekov. There is literally nothing to be done that hasn’t been done a million times before. He commands Russian solders of the post-Soviet period, drafted into compulsory military service despite the unlikelihood of another major war in their lifetime. They drift around the roof of the world and tend to the remnants of their once formidable empire. Now, however, the memories of the glorious past, as well as the histories of the countless slaves who constructed these arctic outposts, are gone, swallowed into the expanse of arctic night.

The movie’s composition implies the Commander’s point of view, even if the connection is never explicitly illustrated. Originally filmed in five episodes for television broadcast, Confession has been edited by Sokurov into a stand-alone film. His rhythms and thematic preoccupations are allowed to unfold at their own rate, and the monotonous repetition—which would be nowhere near as effective in five separate television broadcasts—fully enfolds the viewer over the course of a single concentrated viewing.

It is these same uncompromising rhythms which cause the film occasionally to veer toward self-parody. The movie just doesn’t let up. What little sensuality might be possible with the endless scenes of naked and bathing youths is extinguished by the film’s ubiquitous and repetitious melancholy. Even the possibility of forbidden physical expression providing an outlet for the frustrations of isolation is denied. It is hinted—but only hinted—that the Commander might be closeted, but even this possibility is smothered by the film’s repetition. Desire, like a flame, evaporates without oxygen, and the ship’s stultifying atmosphere leaves the Commander without so much as a whiff of hope. This hopelessness is so pristine and unadulterated in its relentlessness that it can seem absurd. (Sokurov has repeatedly warned against any homoerotic interpretation of his films, but speculation remains as to whether such conviction is a necessary concession to a homophobic Russian public.)

This film is, above all, a study in stoicism: the Commander’s as he faces spiritual isolation, the conscripts’ as they’re pulled from their lives to face meaningless duty in the frigid north, and the nation’s, unmoored from history and diverted into a tepid limbo. Sokurov has crafted a powerful portrait of numbing stasis, a man and a country out of time.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/confession-1998-dvd/