Like an endless, 200-degree Fahrenheit fever dream, Sergei Loznitsa’s “A Gentle Creature” disorients your frame of mind with the force of a thousand demons shredding it apart. In systematic and cinematically dazzling fashion, Loznitsa’s nihilistic riff will drag you to a circle of hell that makes Dante’s “Inferno” look like a love sonnet, and you’ll walk out of the film feeling woozy, defeated and utterly destroyed, in that order. “A Gentle Creature” takes its title from a Fyodor Dostoevsky short story, but don’t make the mistake of calling it an adaptation. In truth, using this title is just another one of Loznitsa’s calculated methods to bring his message home: Russia was once a great country, from where great art and literature sprung, but all that’s left of it today is a corroded flesh-infested pit full of pimps, gangsters, corrupt police officers, apathetic government workers, and strangers regurgitating the expired milk of human kindness.
In the claustrophobic atmosphere of stuffy post offices, prisons and stations, Loznitsa’s heroine (Vasilina Makovetseva) passively waddles through in search of her husband, who is incarcerated in a remote Russian prison-town. After a parcel she sent for him gets returned, she embarks on a quest to find out the reason. A seemingly endless series of sweaty buses, swaying trains, uncomfortable car rides, and lonely long walks keep our gentle creature in motion through the mire and misery of this godforsaken place. Along this journey, with a meticulous sense for staging, fantastically layered shot composition, and masterful camerawork, Loznita’s main character becomes supplanted, and the story of a hopeless Russia is told.
Off-screen cripples scream for condensed milk, characters gorge on pickles and vodka, women hysterically laugh as men force them to take their clothes off, babies cry for attention that they never get, mentally ill strangers rant in monologues about burning their cheating husbands in acid, and one particular story will never make you think about recycling the same way again. By eavesdropping on conversations, and filling the background of the frame with acts of humiliation and violence, Loznitsa packs so much information into this two-and-a-half-hour experience that he creates an entire universe of dehumanized misery.
A second viewing of this film would border on masochism, but it would undoubtedly reveal Loznitsa’s deep understanding of cinema’s mechanics even more. Thanks in large part to the brilliant work by cinematographer Oleg Mutu, set decorator Kirill Shuvalov and sound engineer Vladimir Golovnitski, Loznitsa’s “A Gentle Creature” is an aesthetic masterpiece. Every scene oozes with purpose and any number of them could be studied as an example of the film’s formal immensity. Take the scene where our heroine is in the back of a police car: the subjective camera is suffocated by the two cops in the front seats, we see her reflection in the rear-view mirror while a silent act of violence takes place in the far background, through the windshield. It’s an astounding and breathtakingly cinematic moment, and it’s one of many.
Drudging through the cesspool, Makovetseva barely cracks a smile, her emaciated visage expressing a meek impassivity that anchors the film in dreadful sorrow. It’s the subtlest of performances, and if Loznitsa’s film has any similarity with Robert Bresson’s take on Dostoevsky’s novel (the more faithfully adapted “Une Femme Douce”), it’s in Loznitsa’s use of Makovetseva. She is almost like a prop, part of the furniture in a burning house that sways with the rhythm of the blaze.
The cast that populate this miserable place is formidable, each face — and the close-ups are plentiful — reflecting some aspect of the annihilated environment around them. Loznita’s epic screenplay systemically dissects the procedural underbelly of the beast, owing much more to Franz Kafka than Dostoevsky when it comes to the labyrinthine torment of the bureaucratic nightmare Makovetseva’s woman finds herself in. And then, towards the end, the story takes an unexpectedly surreal turn that will undoubtedly divide critics and admirers alike. Taking a page of out Luis Buñuel’s book, Loznitsa crafts a banquet scene and concludes it with a fundamentally crushing scenario that will have audiences either fleeing for the exit or standing up and applauding “Bravo!”
“A Fantastic Story” is the subtitle to Fyodor Dostoevsky’s short story, which creates another similarity with Loznitsa’s work. The film needs to be viewed as a fantasy, first and foremost, in order for it not to completely alienate the spectator. A hellhole such as this, where barely a sliver of hope is allowed to pass through, can only exist as a searing metaphor of the real world. As a well-established documentarian in his own right (“Maidan,” “The Event”), Loznitsa understands this all too well, and those who’ve seen arguably his most well-known film, “My Joy,” will know that he has been here before. But never like this. Few films can be compared to this type of relentlessness and constant flux of suffering. At a point, the heaviness of the subject and the obsessed focus on the message becomes too much to bear, giving the sense that Loznitsa has derailed his steaming locomotive. But then it ends on an impeccable final shot that will quietly haunt you for days and months ahead, and you almost forgive the momentary loss of control. “A Gentle Creature” ultimately stands as a devilishly symphonic piece of art that transcends cinema and politics to nestle itself in the back of your mind forever. [B+/A-]