Innocent Saturday: Berlin Review

Chernobyl explodes, then fizzles, in a film that promises a lot but delivers much less.

The Chernobyl nuclear disaster plays front and center in Alexander Mindadze's film, in competition at Berlin, but some of the characters' reactions make little sense.

BERLIN -- As the 25th anniversary of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster approaches, it’s time for the tragic events of April 26, 1986 to find filmic expression, beyond the several excellent documentaries already made. Given the tension and humanity of its first hour, Innocent Saturday should have been that film. It isn’t, because the script takes a suicidal dive into ennui, throwing away a film that could have been a major contender in this year’s Berlin competition. Though its subject is bound to generate initial interest, especially at festivals, commerce will be dampened by word of mouth.

Yet the film has all the right credentials to make an emotionally stunning memorial to the world’s greatest nuclear disaster. In his second feature as a director after Soar, acclaimed Russian scriptwriter Alexander Mindadze approaches the story from the POV of a young Communist party official, Valery (Anton Shagin), who happens to arrive on the scene just after the nuclear reactor has blown. What he sees and overhears at the power plant fills him, and the audience, with dread. He flees the contaminated area with the engineers’ hysteria ringing in his ears.

With single-minded purpose, he bursts into the dormitory where his girlfriend Vera lives (sunny debuting actress Svetlana Smirnova-Marcinkevich) and drags her out of the shower. They make a run for the train station but at the crucial moment her heel breaks. The look in their eyes as they miss the train speaks worlds. And then, they set off to buy her some new shoes.

Mindadze’s concern is to show the banality of human reactions to a threat which, at least for the first 36 hours after the explosion, remained invisible, almost theoretical. Roentgens and strontium and contamination be damned; the populace of Chernobyl and its neighboring townships prefer to pass an “innocent Saturday” shopping and partying, in total denial about the great grey cloud fast spreading on the horizon and blazing red in the night sky.

This makes for an interesting aside to the planetary drama taking place under their noses, but it’s hardly the film audiences want to see after the first dazzling hour of tense, handheld camerawork and sickening emotions. When the script begins to circle around itself in a noose of repetition, the tension is dispelled and disappointment sets in.

Shortly after the shoe-buying episode, Valery and Vera stumble onto a giant wedding party and allow themselves to be drawn into the celebrations. Vera gets suited up and sings silly songs with the band. Though Valery has pledged to the authorities in the power plant not to alert people to the danger, he has told Vera and she spreads the word to members of the band. Though shocked, no one bolts for the door; they don’t want to listen to this bird of ill tidings.

While Vera’s reaction may be put down to general airheadedness, Valery’s is much harder to understand. When the band’s drummer gets drunk, he fills in for him with a furious musical outburst. His instinct to flee is consistently short-circuited, and it looks as if he has resigned himself to death by radiation. In the meantime he must be contaminating a huge number of people.

Long after the wedding becomes tiresome, the scene goes on and on. While the audience wants desperately to find out what’s happening outside with the town and the nuclear meltdown, the band plays on, drinking and fighting with each other to the end.

Small details are masterfully handled. The manic wedding scene contains chilling images like Vera’s mocking song (“What’s wrong wrong wrong?”) after she has already been told about the danger they are facing, or the drunken carousing of the bride and groom with their old friend Valery, whose kiss on the mouth has a forbidding metallic taste.

Cinematographer Oleg Mutu, who shot the Romanian breakout films The Death of Mr. Lazarescu and 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, creates a strongly personal style. The opening scenes blaze with edge-of-seat tension thanks to adrenaline-boosted handheld camerawork that takes no prisoners. Though tiring, the non-stop close ups and neck-level swish pans lend enormous urgency to the drama on the screen.

The cast is very well directed, with memorable cameos throughout, like the red-faced bureaucrat who illudes himself that the explosion will land him a promotion. Shagin, a budding young star in Russia, gives a shell-shocked intensity to the central role punctuated with outbursts of violence, recalling a young David Thewliss with less charisma. 

Venue: Berlin Film Festival (Competition)
Production companies: Non-Stop production, Bavaria Pictures, Passenger Film, Sota Cinema Group in association with Arte, MDR
Cast: Anton Shagin, Svetlana Smirnova-Marcinkevich, Stanislav Rjadinskij, Vasilij Guzov, Aleksej Demidov, Vjacheslav Petkun, Sergej Gromov, Uljana Fomicheva, Aleksej Shljamin, Aleksej Galushko, Georgij Volynskij
Director: Alexander Mindadze
Screenwriter: Alexander Mindadze
Producers: Alexander Rodnyansky, Sergej Melkumov, Matthias Esche, Philipp Kreuzer, Alexander Mindadze, Dmitrij Efremov, Oleg Kohan
Director of photography: Oleg Mutu
Production designer: Denis Bauer
Music: Mihail Kovalev
Costumes: Irina Grazdankina, Ekaterina Himicheva
Editors: Dasha Danilova, Ivan Lebedev
Sales Agent: Bavaria Films
99 minutes