Test note (2017)
Directed by: Kantemir Balagov | 118 minutes | drama | Actors: Darya Zhovnar, Olga Dragunova, Atrem Cipin, Veniamin Kac, Nazir Zhukov
A young woman who takes her first steps on the love path, in opposition to her traditional parents who are mainly concerned with what the community thinks of them… on paper, ‘Tesnota’, Kantemir Balagov’s feature film debut, is not very original or groundbreaking. . Clashes between young and old, modern versus traditional, differences in tribes… we’ve seen this before, haven’t we? But in the execution, the director born in 1991 makes up for so much that ‘Tesnota’ can easily be counted among the best Eastern European films of the year.
‘Tesnota’ is set in 1998 in Nalchik, the capital of the Russian republic of Kabardino-Balkaria, an area that has remained virtually unexposed in cinema. The Jewish Ila (abbreviated from Ilana) is a young, beautiful woman who runs a garage with her father. The tough lady is the apple of her father’s eye, but also gets on well with her brother David. There is an immediate tension between her and her mother when she tries to influence her daughter’s choice of clothing. The film begins on the day of David’s engagement: during a traditional family dinner, he announces his engagement to Leah. But that same evening, disaster strikes: David and Leah are kidnapped by Kabarden after the party. Half a village can live on the ransom demanded, so the entire Jewish community is being called in to contribute. To no avail: with the proceeds, only one kidnapped youth can be ‘saved’ and the choice goes to Leah, as her mother is single and she is unable to collect the rest of the ransom. That puts Ila and her parents in a difficult position, of course they don’t exactly have enough options to cough up the enormous amount. The choice Ila’s mother makes – it is clear that she wears the pants in the family – has a major influence on Ila’s life. Is there a future for her and her secret boyfriend Zalim – not a Jew but a Kabard – in Nalchik?
The intriguing relationship between Ila and Zalim could have been explored a bit more – because there is a pleasant, believable chemistry between the two. With him she feels free – freer than in the suffocating environment of her Orthodox Jewish family, in any case, but also in his presence – where his prejudiced comrades turn against Jews, there is an invisible brake. Romeo and Juliet in Russia, but real and stripped of every fairytale element. The mother-daughter relationship is just slightly clearer: oppressive to just over the border of nuisance, but just as indispensable as oxygen and water.
In addition to his excellent cast – lead actress Darya Zhovnar is truly unforgettable and somewhat reminiscent of a young Sigourney Weaver – Balagov can boast of his talented cinematographer Artem Emelianov, for whom ‘Tesnota’ is also his full-length debut. In the almost square format, the events seem extra claustrophobic. His dramatic close-ups in beautiful bright colors alternate the equally hypnotic scenes in which you just don’t see what you want to see. By extension, there is a long scene in which Ila, together with Zalim and his comrades, watches a VHS of a young Russian soldier who is violently murdered by Chechens begging for his life. Not staged, but actually happened. Chillingly awful and it is perfectly defensible that viewers drop out in that scene, but you still sell yourself short.
Because oh, ‘Tesnota’ is one hell of a movie. The era alone – see, hear and feel the 1990s in every second of the film, and Ila’s denim jacket is almost as iconic as Madonna’s jacket in ‘Desperately Seeking Susan’ and Ryan Gosling’s in ‘Drive’ (almost a shame she later traded it in for a track jacket). The aforementioned execution film had such an impact on the youth growing up in Kabardia at the time, that you can understand why Balagov put it in this film that is very personal to him. You feel in everything that the story is close to him, this man knows what he is talking about. The shadow it casts over the rest of the film is almost unbearable, but it fits the suffocating story. The sound of ‘Tesnota’ is equally remarkable: dialogues are not always easy to understand and Balagov – former student of Aleksandr Sokurov – does not seem to make it easy for the viewer. We don’t blame him. ‘Tesnota’ is impressive cinema.