Shame: Karlovy Vary Review

Maritime tragedy becomes marital trauma.

Frosty Russian drama weighs the emotional cost of a submarine accident on the wives back home.

A stark drama about life on a remote Russian submarine base inside the Arctic Circle, Shame is a visually arresting mood piece with just enough gorgeous scenery and romantic intrigue to compensate for its underpowered plot. Dozens of films have been made about courage and claustrophobia beneath the waves, but the veteran Uzbekistani director Yusup Rasykov instead concentrates on the naval wives as they anxiously await the return of their menfolk in a crumbling apartment block perched on the edge of a stunning snowy peninsula.

The director has a track record of social and political critique, both under Communism and afterward, and Shame maintains this tradition. The story echoes the notorious case of the submarine Kursk, which sank in 2000 with 118 sailors onboard, the Russian authorities apparently preferring to let them die rather than accept Western help. Premiered in competition at Karlovy Vary International Film Festival last week, where it won the Fipresci critics’ prize, this downbeat winter’s tale will likely resurface at other festivals. It also has modest theatrical potential among lingering fans of vintage Soviet-era fatalism.

Rasykov and co-writer Ekaterina Mavromatis wrong-foot us with the opening scene, which seems to be setting up an underworld crime thriller, before quickly shifting focus onto more low-key domestic matters. Maria Semenova gives a coolly compelling performance as Lena, a newly married arrival at the base, where her sub-crewman husband is stationed. A boldly unsympathetic heroine, Lena remains aloof from her neighbors, shunning their petty social events. Instead she goes drinking in local bars, attracting hostile gossip with a brief extramarital affair.

When dark rumors of a submarine accident begin to circulate, Lena remains chilly and detached. The other wives use different coping mechanisms -- denial, alcohol, or claiming imaginary phone calls from their missing spouses. One even revives an ancient folk tradition by making a sacrificial offering, tipping an old TV set into the icy sea. Naval authorities initially remain silent, an act of cruelty that only increases desperation and wild speculation among the women.

After the grim truth emerges, Razykov does not sensationalize. Instead, Lena’s muted emotional reaction is channeled into a private investigation into her husband’s romantic secrets. At this point, the film links back to the opening scene, becoming an unlikely rescue story and sour indictment of Russian mental health policy. This late narrative gear-shift is not wholly convincing, though it arguably serves to underline the film’s main message about casual corruption and abuse of power in a secretive state. Shame never quite lands any killer punches, but thankfully cinematographer Yuri Mikhailyshin delivers an endless gallery of epic snowscapes more dramatic than any of the film’s human stories.

Production company: Cultura Initiatives

Producers: Vladimir Malyshev, Andrey Malyshev

Cast: Maria Semenova, Elena Korobeynikova, Helga Filipova, Seseg Hapsasova

Director: Yusup Razykov

Screenplay: Yusup Razykov, Ekaterina Mavromatis

Cinematographer: Yuri Mikhailyshin

Editor: Denis Luzanov

Music: Alexey Artishevsky

Sales contact: Yusup Razykov,

Unrated, 90 minutes