'Core of the World' ('Serdtse Mira'): Film Review

Life's a bitch, and then you die.

Russian writer-director Natalia Meshchaninova's latest feature takes place in a forest-bound compound where dogs are bred to kill foxes.

Up-and-coming Russian director Natalia Meshchaninova kicks her game up a notch with Core of the World, a drama suffused with tenderness in every sense of the word, that represents a follow-up to her well-traveled last feature, The Hope Factory. Affecting but not sentimental the way so many films about animals can be, this intimate work revolves around a troubled young veterinarian (Stepan Devonin, also one of the film’s co-writers and Meshchaninova’s husband in real life) working at a rural facility that uses domesticated foxes to train hunting dogs. After collecting the Grand Prix and best actor awards at the Kinotavr festival in Sochi, Core touched down in Toronto and is likely to go further on the festival circuit, winning acclaim for its strong ensemble performances and nuanced view of human-animal relations.

A vet in his twenties, Egor (Devonin, who really trained as a vet before turning to filmmaking) clearly feels more at ease with his furry-faced patients than he does with people. For example, around a third of the way into the movie, he gets a phone call from his aunt telling him his mother has died basically from being a lifelong alcoholic. Judging by his reactions, there was a painful history there, and Egor makes excuses to get out of going to the funeral, saying he can’t leave work.

In fact, his work is not necessarily that demanding, consisting mostly of feeding the various animals each day and being on hand if something goes wrong, in which case he’s needed immediately given the remoteness of the location. Egor lives on site in a modest hut, little more than a human-sized dog shelter, on a fenced-in compound in a forest in the middle of nowhere, owned by patriarchal boss Nikolai (Dmitriy Podnozov). There, Nikolai and his family rear dogs, particularly Alabais (also known as Central Asian Shepherd dogs), goats, ducks and, most importantly, foxes, which he’s raised for several generations.

Nikolai’s core business is offering training facilities, particularly a specially constructed wooden tunnel with safety doors that’s used to teach clients’ hunting dogs how to chase foxes down their burrows in the wild. He and Egor place the foxes (which may be domesticated but are essentially, per their well-known reputation, untrainable) in the tunnel to act as lures for the dogs, although the foxes don’t seem to get physically hurt. One the other hand, you can’t help wondering how traumatized they must be after being used as bait on a regular basis.

Early on, Egor is called to the main house where Nikolai lives with his wife Nina (Ekaterina Vasilyeva), single-parent daughter Dasha (Yana Sekste) and her son Ivan (Vitya Ovodkov), a child of about 7 or 8. One of the family’s most beloved Alabais, Belka, has been badly injured and needs surgery. Egor fixes her up, even though Nikolai says she should just be put down since she’ll never be the same. Undeterred, Egor lovingly looks after the wounded dog, carrying her on his shoulders to the river for rehabilitative swims and getting Ivan to help him construct for her a cardboard “cone of shame.” (I believe that term was devised by Pixar’s Up, and is now the near-universal term for the protective cones put around animals’ necks to keep them from chewing off their stitches.) Egor also grows closer to Dasha, and eventually the two have wordless, panting, almost painfully urgent-looking sex by the riverside.

Although the two young people clearly long for one another, Dasha must care for the demanding Ivan and Egor is almost completely incapable of expressing his feelings and needs. To say he’s like an animal himself wouldn’t be inaccurate, but the comparison connotes a violent aggressive nature which isn’t apparent here until he's pushed too far late in the story. If Nikolai, with his swagger and gruff nature, is the alpha dog, Egor is definitely a beta, but that submissiveness has its limits.

Egor empathizes utterly with his animals but also accepts that the cruelty of the hunting business he’s working in happens to be the rule of the pack he’s chosen. Conversely, a gaggle of animal-rights activists who show up at the compound’s gate are depicted by the film as well-meaning naïve meddlers, who object to what Nikolai is doing on moral grounds but have little understanding of the animals themselves. When they break in one night and let all the foxes go, the action has tragic consequences, first for some of the freed foxes who don’t know how to defend themselves in the wild, and then for the people around them.

Through the contrast of these very different world views, the script by Meshchanivova, in collaboration with Devonin and Boris Khlebnikov (who wrote and directed Arrhythmia and A Long and Happy Life), builds up a rather dark, Hobbesian view of the nasty, brutish and short nature of existence, even if there’s some balm to be had from moments of affection between creatures, either of the same or different species. With typically Russian storytelling economy, the screenplay doesn’t offer up any psychobabble-filled exposition. Egor had a dire childhood, and that’s pretty much it in terms of motivation.

The rest is left to the cast to “explain” wordlessly through expression, gesture and posture, and all are completely up to the task. Devonin stands out naturally with a physically demanding role, projecting throughout an artless simplicity, but Sekste is no less impressive and Meshchaninova elicits a terrific performance even out of little Ovodkov as the confused young boy. Nevertheless, everyone is upstaged by the cast of animal actors, from the three different hounds who play Belka to the gloriously beautiful den of featured foxes.

Production companies: CTB Film Company, Just a Moment
Cast: Stepan Devonin, Yana Sekste, Dmitriy Podnozov, Vitya Ovodkov, Evgeniy Sytyy, Ekaterina Vasilyeva, Elena Papanova
Director: Natalia Meshchaninova
Screenwriters: Natalia Meshchaninova, Boris Khlebnikov, Stepan Devonin
Producers: Sergey Selyanov, Natalia Drozd
Co-producer: Dagne Vildziunaite
Director of photography: Evgeniy Tsvetkov

Art director: Kirill Shuvalov
Costume designer: Alana Snetkova
Editor: Dasha Danilova
Casting: Elena Ansimova, Tatiana Zakharova
Venue: Toronto International Film Festival (Contemporary World CInema)
Sales: Indie Sales Company

124 minutes