Confession (Povinnost) (1998)

Tim O'Neil

Visceral and at times brutal, it's a livid illustration of the effects of monotony and oppression on the spirit.

Confession (povinnost)

Director: Alexander Sokurov
Cast: Serguei Bakai
Distributor: Facets
MPAA rating: Not Rated
Studio: Lenfilm
First date: 1998
US DVD Release Date: 2005-03-29
Amazon affiliate

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.

Cover down, pray through: Bob Dylan's underrated, misunderstood "gospel years" are meticulously examined in this welcome new installment of his Bootleg series.

"How long can I listen to the lies of prejudice?
How long can I stay drunk on fear out in the wilderness?"
-- Bob Dylan, "When He Returns," 1979

Bob Dylan's career has been full of unpredictable left turns that have left fans confused, enthralled, enraged – sometimes all at once. At the 1965 Newport Folk Festival – accompanied by a pickup band featuring Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper – he performed his first electric set, upsetting his folk base. His 1970 album Self Portrait is full of jazzy crooning and head-scratching covers. In 1978, his self-directed, four-hour film Renaldo and Clara was released, combining concert footage with surreal, often tedious dramatic scenes. Dylan seemed to thrive on testing the patience of his fans.

Keep reading... Show less

Inane Political Discourse, or, Alan Partridge's Parody Politics

Publicity photo of Steve Coogan courtesy of Sky Consumer Comms

That the political class now finds itself relegated to accidental Alan Partridge territory along the with rest of the twits and twats that comprise English popular culture is meaningful, to say the least.

"I evolve, I don't…revolve."
-- Alan Partridge

Alan Partridge began as a gleeful media parody in the early '90s but thanks to Brexit he has evolved into a political one. In print and online, the hopelessly awkward radio DJ from Norwich, England, is used as an emblem for incompetent leadership and code word for inane political discourse.

Keep reading... Show less

The show is called Crazy Ex-Girlfriend largely because it spends time dismantling the structure that finds it easier to write women off as "crazy" than to offer them help or understanding.

In the latest episode of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, the CW networks' highly acclaimed musical drama, the shows protagonist, Rebecca Bunch (Rachel Bloom), is at an all time low. Within the course of five episodes she has been left at the altar, cruelly lashed out at her friends, abandoned a promising new relationship, walked out of her job, had her murky mental health history exposed, slept with her ex boyfriend's ill father, and been forced to retreat to her notoriously prickly mother's (Tovah Feldshuh) uncaring guardianship. It's to the show's credit that none of this feels remotely ridiculous or emotionally manipulative.

Keep reading... Show less

Gallagher's work often suffers unfairly beside famous husband's Raymond Carver. The Man from Kinvara should permanently remedy this.

Many years ago—it had to be 1989—my sister and I attended a poetry reading given by Tess Gallagher at California State University, Northridge's Little Playhouse. We were students, new to California and poetry. My sister had a paperback copy of Raymond Carver's Cathedral, which we'd both read with youthful admiration. We knew vaguely that he'd died, but didn't really understand the full force of his fame or talent until we unwittingly went to see his widow read.

Keep reading... Show less

If space is time—and space is literally time in the comics form—the world of the novel is a temporal cage. Manuele Fior pushes at the formal qualities of that cage to tell his story.

Manuele Fior's 5,000 Km Per Second was originally published in 2009 and, after winning the Angouléme and Lucca comics festivals awards in 2010 and 2011, was translated and published in English for the first time in 2016. As suggested by its title, the graphic novel explores the effects of distance across continents and decades. Its love triangle begins when the teenaged Piero and his best friend Nicola ogle Lucia as she moves into an apartment across the street and concludes 20 estranged years later on that same street. The intervening years include multiple heartbreaks and the one second phone delay Lucia in Norway and Piero in Egypt experience as they speak while 5,000 kilometers apart.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.