Anton's Right Here (Anton tut ryadom): Venice Review

Intermittently affecting but ultimately frustrating first-person documentary from Russia sees the director getting much too close to her subject.

Critic-turned-filmmaker Lyubov Arkus chronicles her relationship with an autistic teenager in her documentary.

For three decades a prominent writer and magazine-editor specializing in Russian cinema, Ukraine-born Lyubov Arkus now harnesses the medium's campaigning possibilities for her directorial debut Anton's Right Here (Anton tut ryadom). An autobiographical essay on her unfolding quasi-maternal relationship with an autistic teenager, this first-person documentary exposes the inadequacies of care-provision in a Russia where mental disorders are still a source of considerable social stigma.

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One of the more buzzed documentaries at Venice this year, it's an accessibly rough-edged if overlong and manipulative treatment of a strong subject, which will find plenty of takers among non-fictional festivals and TV outlets, especially those with an interest in mental-health and human rights issues. Audiences will emphathize with the unfortunate plight of young Anton and also admire the force of Arkus' determination to improve his lot, but it soon becomes apparent she's become much too close to material that would surely have benefited from a more distanced third-party perspective.

"A whole tangle of circumstances" led Arkus to encounter Anton, initially via an essay he wrote as a child which precociously articulated his distinctive world-view. It's not until seven years later that the pair meet in person, just before Anton's mother Rita (aka Rinata) is diagnosed with cancer and undergoes chemotherapy. Anton's separated parents struggle against an unhelpful, sometimes unapologetically prejudiced bureaucracy and it's only with Arkus's interventions that the situation starts to improve. But as he moves from facility to institution to school, it seems that Anton needs a very specific kind of help which the state's organs are ill-equipped to provide, and all the while Rita's worsening health further darkens his nightmarish circumstances.

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Arkus's solution is both drastic and predictable - "OK, we've stolen the child!" she exclaims after the teenager, whose age is never specified, has been safely spirited out of a dour institution - and it's possible to interpret the whole film as an elaborate act of justification for her Samaritan involvement with a stranger and his loved ones. The main problem with Anton's Right Here, however, is that we never quite grasp what it is about Anton that makes him so very appealing and important to Arkus.

His much-discussed essay, extracts of which are read out in the last of the film's five episodes, doesn't seem enough motivation for what becomes an all-consuming 'mission' on Arkus's part. And while Arkus speaks of Anton's "mighty spirit," this just doesn't come across in the extensive footage shot on digital cameras by cinematographer Alisher Khamidkhodzhaev, with inadequate lighting in several interior sequences yielding murkily dark images.

As if aware of this shortfall, Arkus attempts to underline the poignancy by means of plangent piano music - often accompanying heart-tugging images of Anton and other children in states of glim despair - with counterproductive results. Soundtrack selections from the work of Max Richter are more effectively nuanced, but overall there's an inescapable sense that Arkus is excessively straining to elicit both pity for unfortunate individuals and outrage at a faceless government that has cast them aside.

Venue: Venice Film Festival (Out of Competition), September 5, 2012.

Production companies: CTB Film Company, Seance Workshop

Director / Screenwriter: Lyubov Arkus

Producers: Sergey Selyanov, Alexander Golutva, Konstantin Shavlovsky

Director of photography: Alisher Khamidkhodzhaev

Music: Max Richter

Editor: Georgy Ermolenko

Sales agent: Seance Workshop, St Petersburg

No MPAA rating, 114 minutes 

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