'Test' ('Ispytanie'): Antalya Review

Courtesy of Golden Orange Film Festival, Antalya
Pictures and sounds worth (nearly) a thousand words.

Alexander Kott's wordless Soviet-era love-story won the Best International Feature prize at the Turkish festival.

Young hearts go nuclear in Alexander Kott's mannered but quietly affecting Test (Ispytanie), set in an utterly remote corner of the USSR at the dawn of the H-bomb age. Elevated by a luminous performance from newcomer Elena An and Levan Kapanadze's crisply poetic cinematography, this wordless, subtle fable of teenage passions has made an explosive start to its festival career and appeals as an accessibly exotic Russian export. Adventurous distributors in receptive territories will be keen to check it out, although the lack of dialogue may be as much of a hindrance as a help.

Picking up the top prize when premiering at Sochi's Kinotavr in June, the functionally-titled Test was named Best International Feature at Turkey's Golden Orange festival in Antalya four months later. Writer-director Kott, with more than half a dozen features under his belt since debuting in 2001, previously best known for wartime epic Fortress of War (2010), a.k.a. The Brest Fortress, set during the start of the Nazis' Operation Barbarossa in 1941. 

Test takes place at the other end of the same decade, and for the overwhelming majority of its running-time presents a radically more serene and idyllic vision of the Soviet Union. Unspecified in the movie itself, the geographical setting can be deduced as somewhere near Semey in modern-day Kazakhstan, then known as Semipalatinsk — notorious as the site of the USSR's first nuclear test, in August 1949.

This backwater was selected by Stalin's henchman Beria as it was supposedly "uninhabited"  — which would be news to farmer Tolgat (Karim Pakachakov) and his teenage daughter Dina (Elena An), who tend their flock in a windblown corner of the pan-flat steppe. Their harmonious relationship to nature and the film's bold visual approach are neatly encapsulated by the first post-credits sequence, in which Tolgat naps on the back of his flat-bed truck using a similarly somnolent sheep as a pillow, the scene initially presented from a distant angle, high above the dozing duo.

Kott, his cinematographer Kapanadze and sound-designer Filipp Lamshin (whose contributions are especially critical given the absence of speech) instantly take us into the inner world of the observant, artistically-inclined Dina, whose delicate leaf-collages hint at a desire to explore horizons far beyond home. Her two smitten, spirited suitors represent forking paths in the map of destiny: she's semi-betrothed to local lad Kaisyn (Narinman Bekbulatov-Areshev), until fate happens to bring pop-eyed Max (Danila Rassomakhin), whose Caucasian blondness indicates he's not from these peri-Asian parts, into the picture.

Test is essentially a simple tale, imaginatively told, with grace-notes of genuine transcendence and beauty studded throughout its brisk running-time. Kapanadze makes playful use of widescreen aspect-ratio, often framing his compositions with a pictorial precision that would have Wes Anderson sighing in appreciation.

At times the arresting simplicity of the visuals seem to owe more to animation than conventional live-action cinema  — the gymnastically hyperactive, grinning Max is especially cartoonish, in contrast to the more rounded presences of Dina and Tolgat, whose warm father-daughter bonds are amply  conveyed without benefit of dialogue. Amid these gusty climes, perhaps even language has been blown away.

This key creative decision to rely on the "mute" communications of characters who are theoretically capable of speech places Test in a noble cinematic lineage, stretching at least as far back as Russell Rouse's The Thief (1952). It's a sub-genre which by its nature teeters on the hazardous edge of gimmickry — though here the gamble just about pays off, the cumulative eloquence of the images, sound and music narrowly justifying the patience and leap of faith required from the viewer. The closest the picture comes to speech is via the band Namgar, performers of traditional music from the Mongolia-bordering areas of Russia showcasing vocalist Namgar Lhasaranova's whisperingly sub-linguistic ululations. 

Rather more arresting than Alexey Aigi's incongruously conventional, piano-and-woodwind score, Namgar's eerie soundscapes play a particularly prominent role during the spectacular, audaciously apocalyptic finale. Unambiguously indicting the Soviet state's monolithic, cavalier attitude to its far-flung population, this effects-heavy climax soberingly underlines the tragic dimensions of Dina and Max's delicate, doomed romance.

Production companies: Igor Tolstunov Production Company (PROFIT), Drug Druga
Cast: Elena An, Danila Rassomakhin, Karim Pakachakov, Narinman Bekbulatov-Areshev
Director / Screenwriter: Alexander Kott
Producers: Igor Tolstunov, Sergey Kozlov
Cinematographer: Levan Kapanadze
Costume designer / Production designer: Eduard Galkin
Editor: Karolina Machievska
Composer: Alexey Aigi
Sound: Filipp Lamshin
Sales: Antipode, Moscow

No Rating, 96 minutes

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