Few of Us, 1996. In an intriguing long take static shot of the oppressively barren Siberian frontier, a converted tank (turned off-road passenger utility vehicle) traverses a rugged terrain that seemingly bisects a rural, indigenous village, disappears in a spray of displaced mud as it sinks partially out of frame into a trench, then momentarily re-emerges to continue on its plodding journey, only to become imperceptible from the horizon once again as it descends into a series of depressions on the gravel road. Watching this sequence (and film) again within the added context of having also seen Twentynine Palms, I couldn’t help but think that Bruno Dumont must somehow have been influenced by this unstructured and glacially paced, yet lucidly pure, challenging, and entrancingly reductive film by Lithuanian filmmaker Sharunas Bartas, a feature that he developed from his earlier diploma film, Tolofaria on the nomadic, indigenous tribe.
On the surface is the casting of perennial Bartas actress, Yekaterina Golubeva, whose handsome, angular features and enigmatic opacity articulate ennui, despair, and longing in their most elemental form through her abstract, disconnected gaze. Navigating through the barren, alien terrain of the Sayan mountains where Tolofar nomads still lead a primitive, threadbare existence (after she seemingly falls from the sky, having been deposited by a helicopter onto the top of a rock quarry), the adrift young woman takes up shelter at a way station, isolated by language and culture from the daily rituals of the Tolofarians, until an act of violence causes her to leave the village and continue her wandering – figuratively disappearing into the landscape in an exquisite long take that matches the earlier shot of the converted tank laboriously making its way through the trenches of the inhospitable pass. It is this sense of interminable journey through a vast, unknown landscape, coupled by a reinforcing image of (apparent) visual dissolution from that landscape, that seems to particularly coincide with Dumont’s expressed intent to create a kind of road movie that “erases” the characters in order to convey tone and sensation solely by the abstract filming of landscape (as he explained in the Q&A for Twentynine Palms). Moreover, Bartas incorporates an unanticipated (and even more shocking) secondary act of unprovoked violence in the film’s final sequences, a deflection of narrative trajectory that is similarly incorporated (though with mixed results) in Dumont’s film. However, what inevitably makes the maddeningly paced Few of Us, nevertheless, a strangely transfixing and indelible experience is the ethnographic realism that pervades its stark, rigorous imagery – its ability to trace an austere and moribund cultural history through impassive, weather-worn faces, perpetual transience, and silent ritual – to capture the image of lost souls that lay beneath the vacant, anonymous gaze, trapped in a vast wasteland of human desolation.
The Corridor, 1995. In a (relatively) climactic episode that occurs near the hour mark of The Corridor, the residents of a working-class tenement in the metropolitan city of Vilnius in Lithuania congregate on the passageway near the common kitchen to socialize with other tenants and, enlivened by the melancholic (often foreign) pop ballads on the radio (and perhaps fueled by a few too many alcoholic beverages), begin to dance aimlessly and uninhibitedly through the animated, dingy, crowded room. It is an image that recalls the delirious, extended sequence shot of the villagers’ euphoric (or perhaps somnambulistic) tavern dance in Béla Tarr’s contemporary film Sátántangó, an intoxicated display of revelry and reckless abandon that the cruel, troubled girl Estike watches through the window with inscrutable bemusement. Similar to Tarr, Bartas’ cinematic view of post-communist Eastern Europe is one of soullessness, moral ambiguity, and profound desolation. Composed of long takes of indirect gazes and oppressively alienated temps morts (where an eclectic assembly of anonymous residents alternately stare out the window, smoke a cigarette, handle their rifle, voyeuristically peep, awkwardly flirt, become inebriated, and even mischievously set on fire laundry that has been hanging on a clothesline), the fragmented, collage-like portraits of the tenants are interstitially connected through the recurring image of the building’s dimly lit hallways, a visual metaphor for a culture adrift and in transition – a conduit to an undefined destination. Like Tarr’s seminal film, the deliberative and transfixing long takes of The Corridor similarly embody the emergence of a characteristically austere and languidly paced “cinema of waiting” in the wake of the dissolution of the Soviet bloc: a figurative reflection of the crippling inertia borne of spiritual bankruptcy and directional uncertainty after years of pervasive government interference. It is this existential limbo of failed, repressive Cold War policies and stalled socio-economic progress that is inevitably captured in the impassive faces of the silent, disconnected residents – a sense of confusion and entrapment amidst the new-found freedom derived from the indirect liberation of defeated abandonment – a demoralized collective psyche foundering in the obsolescence of an elusive and crumbled ideology.
Acquarello, 2005 [reprinted]