‘Zoology’ (‘Zoologiya’): Karlovy Vary Review

ZOOLOGY- Still1-H 2016
Courtesy of New People Film Company
Tale of tails.

A lonely middle-aged woman sprouts an extra appendage in this mischievous Russian fable about the perils of being different.

Kafka meets Cronenberg, with a side order of gloomy Russian humor, in Zoology, a tragicomic fable about an ostracized outsider fighting back against a crushingly conventional society. The young writer-director Ivan Tverdovsky follows his prize-winning debut Corrections Class (2014) with another bleak but sympathetic portrait of small-town misfits, which won the jury prize at Karlovy Vary last week. More playful and magical than its initial mood of somber social realism suggests, Zoology should grab further festival slots and modest word-of-mouth buzz overseas, largely based on its bizarre fairy-tale premise.

Corrections Class co-star Natalia Pavlenkova reunites with Tverdovsky to play Natasha, a dowdy spinster in her fifties, whose life is a stifling symphony of defeat and disappointment. At the crumbling provincial zoo where she works, sourcing animal feed on an ever-dwindling budget, Natasha is regularly bullied by her haughty boss and cruel colleagues. At home, she is cowed by her domineering mother, whose devout religious faith shades into superstitious gossip about demons, curses and witches.

Natasha also harbors a bizarre secret in the shape of a substantial pink tail sprouting from the base of her spine. This freakish appendage has its practical uses, chiefly as a masturbatory aid, but also is starting to cause her physical pain. A hospital visit brings Natasha into contact with Petya (Dmitri Groshev), a handsome young X-ray technician who takes more than a professional interest in his new patient’s body. As their affair heats up, Natasha rediscovers her long-dormant self-confidence, gets a sexy new makeover and even dares to flaunt her tail in public, shocking her small-minded neighbors.

Tverdovsky insists Zoology is intended to be more universal than a specific allegory for contemporary Russia, although his critical targets include pitiless Orthodox Church clerics and cynical fortune tellers who exploit the fears of the gullible masses. Natasha’s tail serves as a versatile metaphor for the invisibility of older women, body-shaming issues, political and racial differences, anxiety around sexuality and gender in conservative societies, and so on. All fertile material, but a little too vaguely defined to have any deep dramatic bite. If the filmmakers intended a clear message, it gets lost in a muddled swirl of possibilities and a jarring finale that feels imposed on Natasha rather than dramatically plausible.

That said, the pic has sufficient reserves of deadpan wit and sly compassion to excuse its minor dramatic deficiencies. Mostly shot on hand-held camera in a muted palette dominated by maritime blues and faded whites, Tverdovsky’s folkloric fable has a richness of spirit that belies its slender resources. Pavlenkova’s performance is an appealing tour de force, too, pulling off a bold metamorphosis from downtrodden frump to emancipated party animal. And thereby hangs a tail.

Venue: Karlovy Vary International Film Festival
Production companies: New People Film Company, Arizona Films, Movie Brats
Cast: Natalia Pavlenkova, Dmitri Groshev, Irina Chipizhenko, Maria Tokareva
Director-screenwriter: Ivan Tverdovsky
Producers: Natalia Mokritskaya, Mila Rozanova, Uliana Savelieva
Cinematographer: Alexander Mikeladze
Editors: Ivan Tverdovsky, Vincent Assman
Sales company: New Europe Sales 

Not rated, 87 minutes