'Spitak': Film Review

Courtesy of Telesto Film Company
An earnest but unfocused historical drama.
12/7/2018

Aleksandr Kott's drama watches a father dig through the rubble of a 1988 Armenian earthquake in search of his family.

The 1988 earthquake that struck northern Armenia, killing tens of thousands, becomes a trigger for one errant father's remorse in Spitak, an earnest drama by Russian filmmaker Aleksandr Kott. Relying heavily on the pained eyes and self-punishing physicality of lead actor Lernik Harutyunyan, the film convincingly re-creates scenes of destruction but is less sure-footed in dramatic terms, resulting in a handsome and well-meaning picture that will mostly appeal to viewers with some personal investment in the real-world tragedy.

Harutyunyan plays Ghor, who for unexplained reasons has left his wife and child in Spitak, Armenia, for a life in Moscow with some other woman. The film opens with the abandoned family sitting in a photographer's studio, preparing for a portrait the mother, Ghoar (Hermine Stepanyan), may intend to send her estranged husband. The photographer gets the young girl, Anush (Alexandra Politic), to settle down for the camera, and just as he triggers his flashbulb, the world falls apart.

The news has barely hit Moscow television before Ghor is on an airplane, meeting a childhood friend near his old village and, with some difficulty, making his way into the disaster zone. There, the film's design crews offer very credible destruction, and Kott's on-the-move camera works to get us lost in it. Despite what one guesses must be a rather limited budget, the film is convincing in sensory terms, and is compelling as long as it's following a guilt-and-fear-struck Ghor: The man finds his old house and begins pulling large stones away from the wreckage, determined but unaware that his wife and child aren't there.

Both of them are alive, trapped in the studio alongside the dead photographer — the mother injured and pinned by rubble while the daughter is unharmed. Kott and screenwriter Marina Schinskaya aren't afraid to be called sentimental here, and make use of the portrait studio's props. Little Anush dresses in a nurse costume to tend to her mother; she puts on bunny ears when trying to squeeze her way through tiny openings in the debris.

The mild sugariness of these scenes might be justifiable as a way of balancing Harutyunyan's intense performance and his character's desperation. But the film has more than just these two elements playing against each other. The script introduces several other characters who cross paths with Ghor — other townsfolk looking for missing relatives; first-responder excavation teams flown in from France; Russian soldiers and prisoners recruited for their muscle. The extra faces should flesh out the picture of human suffering here, but their stories are underwritten and don't even really work to provide the illusion of depth, as in a '70s Hollywood disaster flick. A cynic might say they're just here to pad Ghor's simple narrative. But odd moments in which Kott lingers too long with someone suggest his interest in them is genuine. It just isn't justified by the screenplay.  

It's clear from the start that this isn't the kind of film where a beloved child (who points out her own beauty on two separate occasions) doesn't get to reunite with the father who longs for her. The story's resolution is formulaic, but deeply enough felt that few will resent the film's manipulations.

Cast: Lernik Harutyunyan, Alexandra Politic, Hermine Stepanyan, Oleg Vasilkov, Josephine Japy
Director: Aleksandr Kott
Screenwriter: Marina Sochinskaya
Producers: Elena Glikman, Tereza Varzhapetian
Executive producer: Svetlana Chuiko
Director of photography: Pyotr Dukhovskoy
Production designer: Oleg Ukhov
Costume designer: Elena Ushakova
Editors: Olga Grinshpun, Nikolay Ryakhovsky
Composer: Serj Tankian

In Armenian, 88 minutes