It was a pleasure to see Andrei Tarkovsky's Stalker on the big Civic screen again – fabulous! I first saw the film when it screened at the 1981 NZIFF, and it left an indelible impression. So, I went to this year's screening with some trepidation, knowing from experience how unkind time can be to films from decades ago. Thankfully, it hasn't really dated, all things considered. The clunkiness was always there (Tarkovsky was no action director, it has to be said), but the philosophical inquiry is as relevant at it was 35-years ago, maybe more so, and the cinematic qualities are undiminished. I also discovered that it's more overtly Christian than I remembered, despite knowing that it always had a thumping big Christian heart.
There are a few moments in Andrei Zvyagintsev's Loveless that recall Stalker, as well as works by Nuri Bilge Ceylan and Krzysztof Kieślowski (both influenced by Tarkovsky), but these resonances were fleeting. It's too early to judge whether Loveless is in the same league as the best work of such filmmakers, but it was a satisfying and at times devastating experience. It's the only film in this festival that made me choke - twice! The first was when 12-year-old Alyosha (Mayvey Novikov), the son of a bitterly feuding divorced couple, is revealed behind a bathroom door silently overcome by anguished despair. The emotion caught me by surprise – heart-breaking! The next was near the end of the film when a father mistreats his infant son. It wasn't overtly violent, but the callousness was palpable and shocking.
From a simple scenario centred on the search for a missing child, Zvyagintsev and his regular writing partner, Oleg Negin, have fashioned an allegory about indifference of near-apocalyptic proportions. Loveless is a very beautiful piece of cinematic poetry, tightly controlled, precisely structured, exquisitely graceful, and – despite the bleak subject matter – gorgeous to watch and listen to: the exceptional music and sound design have a stark beauty that emphasises the implicit anger of the film. In fact, the high level of craft serves as an effective counterweight to the bleak portrait of contemporary Russia.
While Loveless is critical of systematic and individual indifference in Russia, the film could have been set anywhere. The miserable state of affairs it depicts is by no means not unique to Russia. The same could be said about the bureaucratic and societal hell portrayed in A Gentle Creature, although Sergei Loznitsa's Kafkaesque nightmare feels more broadly East-European. Loveless also shares thematic threads with Zvyagintsev's Elena (2012), but this new work is a more pointed commentary on consumerism, self-absorbed isolation, the erosion of empathy and the dissolution of societal values in an age of technological hyper-connectivity.
The film primarily focuses on the micro-dramas of Alyosha, his parents, their lovers and associates, and the impotence of social services, which reflects a broader societal and political collapse regardless of the profusion of bankrupt symbols of order and purpose (Christian iconography, luxury consumer goods). But in the closing moments, Zyvagintsev and Negin offer a macro-view in a montage that shows the protagonists settled into their new relationships a year or so later. The critical component of this sequence is televised news reports about rising tensions in Ukraine that ostensibly play as domestic noise in the background, but that serves as an invitation to draw a more broadly political conclusion.
Refusing to offer reassuring platitudes about "working through differences", Loveless means precisely what it says on the label.