'Over the Limit': Film Review | IDFA 2017

Courtesy of International Film Festival Amsterdam
Quest for sporting gold yields precious documentary metal.

Marta Prus' debut, featuring Russian gymnast Margarita Mamun, world-premiered in competition at the Dutch documentary festival.

With her first feature-length documentary Over the Limit, Polish writer-director Marta Prus does for rhythmic gymnastics what Damien Chazelle did for drumming in Whiplash. Obtaining all-areas access to Olympic-competing Russian star athlete Margarita Mamun, Prus records in intense detail the verbal and physical pressures to which the young woman is subjected by her fiercely determined coaches. One of the most notable premieres at this year's IDFA, this tightly edited Poland-Germany-Finland co-production will have no difficulty racking up festival play in the coming months, scoring podium-level marks from juries and audiences alike.

Prus breaks no new ground in formal, structural or stylistic terms — the doc follows 20-year-old Mamun in the months leading up to the 2016 Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro — but displays an impressively confident grasp of established fly-on-the-wall techniques. For example, while Mikolai Stroinski's score, mainly using strings and slow, sad piano, is familiar enough, it is deployed with effective restraint as Prus films her subject at work, rest and play.

Not that Mamun's grueling, punishing schedule allows much scope for anything resembling a private or personal life. The bulk of her time, and of the film's brisk 73-minute duration, is taken up with training sessions where she gracefully deploys ball, ribbon, batons and hoop with equal aplomb while being forcibly knocked into shape by her two trainers.

While Mamun is generally front and center, it's this brace of formidable ladies who really steal the show. Her personal coach Amina Zaripova — who controversially missed out on a medal at Atlanta '96 by the narrowest of margins — can be strict and firm when required, even harsh. "You're not a human being, you're an athlete," she barks. But Zaripova is essentially an encouraging voice ("Fight for yourself!") and can also show a caring intimacy with her emotionally sensitive charge which verges on the warmly maternal.

There's no such soppy nonsense from Zaripova's boss, however, the larger-than-life Irina Viner-Usmanova. Head coach of Russia's national gymnastics team and the wife of Russia's richest man, multi-billionaire Alisher Usmanov, Viner-Usmanova is glamorously attired, behatted and made up at all times. But this genteel-looking grande dame swears like a Seattle stevedore, incessantly barracking the hapless Mamun in a manner which many will view as unacceptably abusive. "We need to treat her like a dog!," the lady bellows. "She has to work and work and work!"

Viner-Usmanov's invective-spewing presence ("You're losing your concentration, bitch!") dominates proceedings whenever she's onscreen, in a manner reminiscent of those ballet martinets from luridly exaggerated movies like The Red Shoes, Suspiria and Black Swan (Aronofsky fans will spot that Mamun's ribbon routine is danced to a track from the film's score). She'd even give Allison Janney's mom-from-hell in Craig Gillespie's I, Tonya a run for her money. But although this kind of outrageous behavior can be exhilarating and amusing in fictional settings, as J.K. Simmons' Oscar-winning Whiplash turn so viciously proved, it's much more disturbing in the documentary realm.

Supporters of the Russian approach can, of course, point to the country's remarkable track record in gymnastics over the years, fruit of a ruthless style of management that's traceable all the way back to the notorious U.S.S.R. days. For most of Over the Limit, however, it appears to be an inappropriate way of handling a delicate sort like Mamun, whose emotional development is more fragile and uncertain than her remarkable physical gifts.

As Rio looms and the pressures mount, her medal chances seem to diminish before our eyes. And this, for those unfamiliar with the outcome, makes the very final moments all the more striking in their abrupt impact. It's a reminder that in cinema, just like in gymnastics, a dramatic finish can make all the difference.

Production company: Telemark
Director-screenwriter: Marta Prus
Producers: Anna Kepinska, Maciej Kubicki
Executive producer: Anna Wereda
Cinematographer: Adam Suzin
Editor: Maciej Pawlinski
Composer: Mikolai Stroinski
Venue: International Documentary Festival Amsterdam (Feature-Length Competition)
Sales: Autlook, Vienna

In Russian
73 minutes