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About halfway through writer-director Larisa Sadilova’s latest feature, Once in Trubchevsk, a story about two married people having an affair in provincial Russia, it’s revealed that the woman is named Anna. Minutes later, there’s a shot of train wheels in motion, and the sound spikes suddenly enough to make viewers jump a bit. Maybe that’s just a coincidence, but having an Anna and a train in the story could trigger some viewers to wonder with dread if Sadilova is aiming for a sly remake of, or at least homage to, Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy’s great novel wherein trains play a huge role in the life and death of the adulterous heroine of the title.
No disrespect to Tolstoy, but it’s a relief when it’s revealed that this quiet, charming comedy-drama isn’t headed in any kind of tragic direction and that the likable but flawed, all-too-human characters that make up the love square at the center of the story all survive to the end. More assured and tautly made than some of Sadilova’s earlier features like Babysitter Required (2005) or Sonny (2010), the trim Once in Trubchevsk is a relatable, pleasant but decidedly unshowy work. Its placement in Cannes’ Un Certain Regard section may give it a tiny boost commercially, although the market for low-key Russian features like this is pretty minuscule beyond the festival circuit, Russian émigré-rich spots in Germany and Eastern European and New York City’s Brighton Beach neighborhood.
Anna (Kristina Schneider) and her truck-driving lover (Egor Barinov, whose character is oddly never named onscreen or in the film’s press notes) live a couple of houses away from each other in the dinky Russian town of Trubchevsk. It’s a village not far from the Ukrainian border from which Sadilova happens to come and where she has set several of her films, about a day’s drive from Moscow to the north and Rostov-on-Don to the south. So far, neither the trucker’s wife, Tamara (Maria Semyonova), nor Anna’s husband, Yury (Yury Kiselev), have noticed that their spouses often choose the same day to travel to, in Anna’s case, Moscow, and Rostov in the trucker’s case.
In fact, every time after Yury helps his wife onto the Moscow bus she actually gets off a little way down the road where the trucker collects her in his rig. Then the two lovers travel to wherever he’s supposed to be delivering his load, sleeping together either in the cab or a favorite hotel en route, and always stopping for pelmeni (Russian ravioli) at the same little roadside restaurant on the way. A skilled craftswoman adept at both knitting and crochet, Anna’s excuse for traveling is that she sells her work to boutiques in either Rostov or Moscow, thereby supplementing the family income.
This happy arrangement continues for some time, through seasons clearly indicative that the shoot elapsed over a long period. However, Anna’s growing feelings of guilt occasionally bubble up uncontrollably, leading her to announce that she’s going to tell Yury the truth and therefore break up her marriage, leaving the trucker to decide for himself what he will do about Tamara. Unfortunately, a long winter scarf (Aran weight yarn, ribbed) Anna gives the trucker as a Christmas gift is discovered by Tamara, who drops an oblique hint to Yury that something’s up, and before long the secret is out.
Anna goes to live in a house sublet from a tiny, wrinkled and very garrulous babushka in the middle of nowhere, but the trucker can’t quite make the break from Tamara and his teenage son. Over time, the isolation, infrequent visits from the dithering trucker, and longing for her pubescent daughter back at her husband’s house lead Anna to question her decision. Mind you, it must have been a huge relief to get away from her gorgon of a mother-in-law who, even before Anna left Yury, nags everyone in her family incessantly, creating an amusing running gag.
Sadilova resolves the situation with an elliptical simplicity that’s satisfying without betraying the characters, who are played by an excellent quartet of actors, the rest of the cast filled out with assorted nonprofessionals as has been the case in the director’s previous work. Originally a singer by profession, Schneider has a luminous presence with her sparkly eyes and happy-in-her-own-skin confidence that makes no apology for her curves. It’s not hard to see why mostly kindly but henpecked Yury or her gormless neighbor lover both adore her so much, or what she sees in each of them in turn. Semyonova fights her corner valiantly, making Tamara both a hard-done-by but clearly neurotic figure.
Sadilova’s affection for these humble but still unique people is palpable throughout. Tolstoy famously wrote in the opening of Anna Karenina that all happy families are alike, but unhappy ones are each unique.” This film subverts that notion by suggesting that the line between happy and unhappy, alike and unique, is pretty hazy.
Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Un Certain Regard)
Production: A Shim Film Company, Arsi Film Company production
Cast: Egor Barinov, Kristina Schneider, Yury Keselev, Maria Semyonova, Valentina Kozova, Victor Bogatkin, Alexandra Bobkovskaya
Director-screenwriter: Larisa Sadilova
Producers: Larisa Schneidermann, Larisa Sadilova, Rustam Akhadov
Director of photography: Anatoly Petriga
Art director: Igor Stolyarov
Costume designer: Mansura Uldzhabaeva, Ekaterina Tsurkina-Appina
Editor: Gleb Dragaytsev
Sales: Loco Films
No rating; 80 minutes
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