Part of the fun of a major film festival is discovering hidden gems or correcting personal cinematic blind spots. I experienced a bit of both on the ninth day of the Cannes Film Festival this year, after hearing a couple of glowing endorsements from colleagues for Darezhan Omirbaev’s Crime and Punishment adaptation, Student. Until now, the Kazakhstani Omirbaev had eluded me, his films so lacking in distribution that I’ve heard of virtually none of them, despite being now 20 years into a relatively fruitful career and already having won the top prize in the 1998 Un Certain Regard strand at Cannes for Tueur a gages. He now he’s returned for the third time to compete in Un Certain Regard with Student, a stark, uninflected character study transposing the themes of Dostoyevsky famous novel to modern Kazakhstan. Being unfamiliar with the remainder of his work, I can’t say where this falls in the man’s filmography, but I do know it’s one of the best films I’ve seen in the last few days of the fest — the kind of thing that will probably never be distributed Stateside and thus makes sifting through opinions and taking scheduling risks worthwhile at such a vast festival.
Omirbaev’s style here reminds me most often of Robert Bresson, who’s elliptical, austere compositional sense consistently stripped affectation from even his most potentially melodramatic characters (think the young thief in Pickpocket; the resourceful prisoner in A Man Escaped; the brooding killer in L’argent). In Student, Omirbaev takes the basic premise of crime and comeuppance from Dostoyevsky and transplants it to a familiar setting (the classroom), building his main character’s growing sense of loneliness in subtle, stylistically pared moments of quiet unease. Like Bresson, Omirbaev keeps gestures honed to an essential level, never wasting time with extraneous dialogue or narrative asides, instead placing utmost importance on even the most seemingly mundane of activities. When a lack of funds elicits a violent act from the thought-to-be-mild-mannered student of the film’s title, Omirbaev doesn’t sensationalize the act, but rather presents the reality in matter-of-fact fashion, the fallout from the act as starkly represented as the crime itself.
Omirbaev’s symbolic use of animals and the abuse perpetrated on them by humans is another obvious allusion to Bresson. The blunt vitriol of The Devil, Probably, in particular, manifests itself in multiple sequences of animal cruelty, and Student similarly transitions with sequences of animalistic rage (an early scene involving a beaten donkey may be the film’s most blatant reference, taking the central symbol of spirituality presented in Au hasard Balthazar and literally re-staging the allegorical consequence). But Omirbaev’s humanity and sense of atonement sets him apart from late-period Bresson. Omirbaev gathers texts both literary and cinematic into Student’s sly presentation and constructs a worldview from these frames that is as rich as it is mysterious. It’s certainly the surprise of the festival for me thus far.
I’d imagine many having a similar feeling of revelation a couple of years ago when Sergei Loznitsa’s first narrative feature, My Joy, played in competition at Cannes with little inherent intrigue going in. Ten years of documentary filmmaking never broke Loznitsa’s out of obscurity, but a high profile birth at the world’s most prestigious film festival certainly piqued interest. The work of an expert craftsmen with a eye for outlying detail — the sort only perfected by years of work in different formats — My Joy felt well beyond it’s status as a debut feature. Confident, narratively ambitious, and darkly elliptical, the film brought Loznitsa waves of praise a handful of awards, and now a second straight Competition slot for his latest feature, In the Fog. Based on the novel by Vasili Bykov, In the Fog is a more downcast, melancholy work than the unforgiving My Joy, and as a meditation on the often numbing day-to-day routine of war, rather potent in execution.
Loznitsa’s narrative again jumps around non-chronologically, but it’s adherence to the plight of it’s main characters marks it as a significantly less bold feat of structural ingenuity than his debut. Yet this purposeful streamlining has it’s own positive effects: Now forced to hang on every word, the audience is freed from the more cerebral spacial and continuity ellipses weaved throughout My Joy, and are left in turn with a slow-burn psychological study that gathers weight through each thwarted action sequence and elided narrative thread. Set in 1942 during the German occupation of the USSR, the film bluntly depicts the grueling endurance test soldiers face during long stretches of downtime in the field. The way it methodically unfolds, never opting for convolution at the expense of character, leaves in it’s a wake a mournful sense of inevitably when one thinks of the thousands of men who’s similar stories will never be told.
The film centers on Sushenya, a rail worker who is wrongly arrested along with three war criminals sentenced to hang for their crimes. In a extraordinary opening tracking shot, we see Sushenya on his way to the gallows pole, only to be saved by a German officer in hopes of gathering further incriminating information. Loznitsa’s camera circles around the camp and in a flourish reminiscent of some of My Joy’s deterred perspective shots, turns an eye to the death of the three saboteurs. The remainder of the film hinges on this introductory scene and Sushenya’s implication in the deaths of these men. Loznitsa quietly, without any accompanying music, depicts Sushenya’s subsequent escape and months-long evasion of German soldiers in the wilds of the Russian frontier. The film slowly builds, never reaching a traditional war film climax, but instead stokes equally potent flames as Sushenya delivers a gut-punching final speech before having to choose between honor, friendship, and and his own mortality. It’s a mature move by a mature filmmaker, still only two films deep into what looks to be very promising new direction.