'The Postman's White Nights' ('Belye nochi pochtalona Alekseya Tryapitsyna'): Venice Review

Biennale di Venezia
Aleksey Tryapitsyn in "The Postman's White Nights"
You know you’re in assured hands from the very first frame

Russian veteran Andrei Konchalovsky makes his fifth competition appearance in Venice with this contemplative docu-fictional slice of remote village life

VENICE — Blending fiction with documentary and exquisite film craft with playful improvisational freedom, Andrei Konchalovsky delivers what might be the most captivating screen work of his post-Hollywood career with The Postman's White Nights. Shot in an isolated village in Northern Russia on and around breathtaking Kenozero Lake, with a cast made up primarily of untrained locals playing versions of themselves, this is a gently nuanced portrait of a backwater community untouched by the transformations of the post-Soviet nation.

Written by Konchalovsky with former journalist Elena Kiseleva, the screenplay was basically a flexible storyline built around the central figure of a mailman. He drives his motorboat to and from the nearest mainland post office, serving as the sole official link to the outside world for the handful of inhabitants in a village stuck in time.

Anton Chekhov wrote with both profound melancholy and droll humor of the erosion of aristocratic Russian society, left behind in a fast-transitioning late 19th century world. There are faint mirror reflections in the way Konchalovsky casts his tender, contemplative gaze over the opposite end of the social spectrum at the start of the 21st century.

Remote locations, lousy roads and lack of infrastructure mean that many tiny villages like the one depicted here are forgotten by contemporary Russia. As young people move to the towns and cities in search of opportunity and older generations die out, the number of these far-flung, self-sustaining hamlets within national borders has drastically diminished.

That elegiac backdrop colors the story of Lyokha, played by real-life village postman Aleksey Tryapitsyn with a natural soulfulness, ease and understated sad-clown quality that belie his total lack of experience in front of the camera. Puttering along on his boat across the vast lake, he calls on friends and neighbors, delivering mail, but also pension payments and basic necessities like bread and light bulbs. An easygoing type who swore off booze two years earlier, Lyokha flirts with the pretty women, converses with the chatty ones, indulges the geezers by allowing them to rant at length, and humors the drunks and crazies. These people live humbly off agriculture or fishing, many of them numbing their solitude with vodka.

When Lyokha delivers a letter to Irina (theater actress Irina Ermolova, one of the few professionals in the cast), the object of his unrequited affections since back in high school, he misreads her friendly manner as a window for romance. He develops a lovely rapport with her young son Timur (Timur Bondarenko), teaching the fatherless boy to fish and plow the vegetable patch. But this doesn’t help Lyokha get closer to Irina, who has made up her mind to quit the village and start fresh in the city.

The bigger dilemma in the postman’s life is the theft of the motor from his boat. Unable to carry out his professional duties, he suddenly becomes a man without an identity, his daily routines now meaningless. As he goes about trying to find the thief or replace the motor, a frustrating quest that takes him in and out of the city, he begins to experience hallucinations of a cat, a magnificent Russian blue that comes into his room at nights.

There are beguiling touches of folksy magic throughout the film, notably a trip with Timur along a reedy estuary where Lyokha terrifies the boy out of his wits with tales of a swamp witch called the Kikimora. Then there are poignant moments of yearning for the past, like his return to the broken-down former schoolhouse, where the ghostly echoes of children’s voices singing patriotic anthems ring out. And there are glimpses of the world beyond this insular community — some as banal as weekly television shows that are the sole company of many inhabitants in the evenings; others as surreal as a rocket launch from a military facility in the distance.

That hilarious visual gets perhaps the film’s biggest laugh. But humor figures throughout in the eccentricities of villagers such as an old soak known as The Bun (Victor Kolobov) and a curmudgeon named Yura (Yury Panfilov), who tells Lyokha in a typically hollow threat, “Maybe not today but tomorrow, I will stab someone to death.”

The film was shot digitally using two RED cameras. Cinematographer Aleksander Simonov kept them hidden for much of the shoot, encouraging scene participants to prattle on unselfconsciously, their dialogue often overlapping to amusing effect.

The story rolls onward rather than concludes. But the loose narrative ultimately is secondary to the warmth and generosity of spirit with which Konchalovsky observes this quaint enclave, no doubt destined to disappear over time.

The setting itself is gorgeous, with its boxy cottages fringed by grassy clearings and woodlands, and the placid surface of the water stretching on for miles. It’s a rare pleasure to see a film made with such an elegant compositional eye, its pictures woven together with grace by editor Sergei Taraskin. Deep-focus shots of Lyokha at his most pensive, standing on the shores of the lake, are loaded with a sense of place, and of belonging. The same goes for the hypnotic Steadycam sequences of him zooming along in his boat, the sound of the motor quietly giving way to a slow build of electronica composer Eduard Artemyev’s stirring ambient score with choral elements.

Images like those linger after the film, of a man clinging to a cherished but difficult way of life in a place oblivious to the laws of progress.

Production company: Andrei Konchalovsky Studios

Cast: Aleksey Tryapitsyn, Irina Ermolova, Timur Bondarenko, Victor Kolobov, Victor Berezin, Tatyana Silitch, Irina Silitch, Yury Panfilov, Nikolay Kapustin, Sergey Yuryev, Valentina Ananyina, Lyubov Skorina, Lyubov Zikova

Director: Andrei Konchalovsky

Screenwriters: Andrei Konchalovsky, Elena Kiseleva

Producer: Andrei Konchalovsky

Executive producer: Olesya Gidrat

Director of photography: Aleksander Simonov

Production designer: Lubov Skorina

Music: Eduard Artemyev

Editor: Sergei Taraskin

Sales: Antipode Sales & Distribution

No rating, 101 minutes.