Siberia, Monamour: Film Review

Stories of Siberian strife captivate in this well-directed drama.

With a screenplay developed under the Cannes Residence program, director Slava Ross offers a portrayal of backwater Russian life with a dark (and very Russian) sense of humor.

PARIS -- A solidly directed portrayal of backwater Russian life, Siberia, Monamour marks a promising sophomore effort from filmmaker Slava Ross. Distributed in France by EuropaCorp, it should find international exposure in fest slots and bookings on the arthouse circuit.

Miles away from the absurdist theatrics of his debut feature, Fat Stupid Rabbit, Ross convincingly depicts various country folk fighting to survive both in and around the ironically named hamlet of Monamour, located in the heart of the Siberian taiga. Cut off from the outside world in conditions that appear unchanged since the reign of Nicolas II, the place is left open to attack by dogs and thieves scouring the land for food.

The well-constructed narrative has several characters crossing paths at different points, centering on an orphaned 7-year-old boy, Lyochka (Mikhail Protsko), and his god-fearing grandfather (vet Pyotr Zaichenko, Taxi Blues), who reside alone in a ramshackle log cabin. After stopping by to offer assistance, Lyochka’s uncle (Sergei Novikov) suffers a horrible fate, leaving his dad and nephew completely isolated as the winter sets in and the snow begins to tumble.

A parallel, somewhat lighter storyline involves a mentally unstable army captain (the formidable Nikolai Kozak) who’s been sent on a mission to retrieve a prostitute for his cigar-chomping lieutenant (Sergei Puskepalis, How I Ended This Summer). Accompanied by a young private (Maxim Yemelyanov), the soldiers traverse the mud-filled country roads until they eventually snare a girl (Lidiya Bairashevskay), and only then have a change of heart.

Initially developed under the Cannes Residence program, the screenplay’s different plots are sufficiently weaved together, even if they do suffer from a certain heavy-handedness and overt symbolism (e.g. wild dogs racing beneath a rusty Communist-era monument, a child’s drawing substituting as an Orthodox icon). But Ross often undercuts such moments with a dark (and very Russian) sense of humor, as well as a pointed naturalistic style that accompanies certain scenes, including a roadside picnic where two characters swap stories and indulge in a bottle of moonshine.

Performances are strong across the board, and the young Protsko is particularly touching without ever seeming cute. Excellent cinematography by Yury Rajski and Alexey Todorov captures the monumental landscapes and decaying interiors, while the score by Aidar Gainullin is perhaps too grandiose for the subject matter.

Opened: In France (April 20)
Production company: Tundra Film
Cast: Pytor Zaichenko, Mikhail Protsko, Sergei Novikov, Lidiya Bairashevskay, Nikolai Kozak, Maxim Yemelyanov, Sonya Ross
Director/screenwriter: Slava Ross
Producers: Vadim Zhuk, Slava Ross, Igor Chekalin
Directors of photography: Yury Rajsky, Alexey Todorov
Production designer: Grigori Pushkin
Music: Aidar Gainullin
Costume designer: Mariya Rtishcheva
Editor: Igor Litoninskiy
Sales Agent: EuropaCorp
No rating, 94 minutes