A Gentle Creature, Ukrainian director Sergei Loznitsa’s fifth feature film, is a minimalist, suffocating and quirky journey into a society steeped in inhumanity. Set in a dateless, phantasmal Russia, where prisons are “as precious as gold” and chopped up bodies are subjects of everyday conversation, the film’s title is a nod to Russian writer Fyodor Dostoyevsky, whose short story of the same name was inspired by news of a seamstress taking her own life in 1876, which he called “a meek suicide that haunts you for a long time.”
Eerie from start to finish, the film follows a fraught, nameless protagonist traveling to a remote prison town to deliver a parcel to her husband, who she believes has been arbitrarily incarcerated by the state. “An ordinary parcel,” she tells a co-worker before embarking on her quest. But nothing about prisons is ordinary, nor — as we later learn — is anything about the woman’s journey.
The central character, played by Vasilina Makovtseva, lives with her dog in a rudimentary shed somewhere in Russia’s countryside. She has an impenetrable demeanor, laden with grief and an overarching stoicism that she carries between her home and her workplace, a run-down petrol station of which she is a night watchman. That is the extent of the information we are given about her, which reveals one of the film’s many lines of inquiry: a fascination with the space, not the people, in which impassivity swells.
Having been notified by the local post office that the package she had sent to her husband was rejected, the woman is determined to find out why. She trudges through Russian bureaucracy and a hostile landscape, shot by Loznitsa’s frequent collaborator Oleg Mutu, whose cinematography displays a fondness for drawn-out, warm-colored shots. This stylistic motif manifests in the film’s opening scene, in which we see a white and brown mid-century bus making its way up a desolate dirt driveway, introducing the unvarnished quality that distinguishes the film’s visual texture.
Wherever the protagonist goes, her questions are met with utter humiliation. The fact that no one fully empathizes with her ordeal demonstrates the normalization of cruelty, which can be both harrowing and captivating. Instead of searching for answers, people abuse one another and toast their own “enormous suffering.”
Between the hostile woman who notifies her of the rejection of her parcel, fellow passengers on trains and buses, and the residents of the town that houses the prison, all of whom promise to “help” the struggling wife, Loznitsa introduces a certain strain of people: cold, rowdy and fluent in deception. They stand in stark contrast with the haggard, “gentle” woman at the center of his story.
Outrageous and occasionally violent conversations unravel around her, some to the sound of crying babies neglected amid the activity of the town’s brothel. Her quiet stoicism colors the scarcity of the character’s dialogue throughout the two-and-a-half hour film, leaving the larger portion of the story to unfold along the margins of her plight.
Midway through the film, the protagonist realizes that her perseverance in finding her husband, and her gentle will to hold onto a morsel of humanity, are to no avail. Loznitsa captures this moment with a long shot of Makovtseva staging a silent, solo protest in front of the large, white facade of the prison, guards walking in and out without acknowledging her presence.
In its final moments, A Gentle Creature departs from the original narrative, delivering what feels like a film within a film. In a short theatrical piece which serves as a welcome break from the central plot, Makovtseva, dressed in white, observes an absurd banquet in which those she met along her journey, the “Russian Federation’s treasures,” are honored for their devotion to the nation state.
In her review of Loznitsa’s debut feature, My Joy (2010), Variety’s Alissa Simon commends the filmmaker’s ability “to create and sustain a visual style of heightened realism that lends total credibility to scenes that would, in other hands, play as horror or dream,” a skill he also employs in his most recent film.
A Gentle Creature could read as a criticism of Vladimir Putin’s Russia as much as it could be viewed as a response to the global disintegration of our humanity. It is slow-paced and at times violent, but if you enjoyed Emir Kusturica’s Underground, the acclaimed Serbian director’s piercing 1995 dark comedy, exploring our horrific disposition to self-destruct, A Gentle Creature is the film to see.