Thursday, April 20, 2017

206. Russian director Andrei Mikhalkov-Konchalovsky’s film “Belye nochi pochtalona Alekseya Triyapitsyna ” (The Postman’s White Nights)(2014) (Russia): An amazing, profound elegy reconciling one to the fact that good and evil coexist in Russia, then and now

Where does this music come from? From the heavens or from the ground? Now it’s stopped.
--- A quote from Shakespeare’s The Tempest, used as the end quote for The Postman’s White Nights

Any serious Konchalovsky film viewer will recall that the end-quotes of his films, when used, are very important to put the tale one just viewed in its intended perspective.  He did use it with aplomb in Runaway Train (a quote from Shakespeare’s Richard III) and Shy People (a quote from Revelations in the Bible). What is the music he is referring to? It would be too simplistic to consider it to be the music of the film’s composer Eduard Artemev, the talented composer of Tarkovsky’s three monumental works—Solaris, Stalker and Mirror, and the important Russian sci-fi film Dr Ivan’s Silence. The music is most likely to be a metaphor for the waves of good and evil forces that an average Russian encounters in life and learns to live with over time.

The real postman Aleksey Triyapitsyn "acts" as himself--his army clothes
indicate his status of a paid government employee

Now, Andrei Konchalovsky’s career can easily be divided into three distinct phases: pre-Hollywood work in former USSR, some with classmate Andrei Tarkovsky (The Steamroller and the Violin, Ivan’s Childhood, Andrei Rublyev) and some alone; his Hollywood phase (which included Runaway Train, Maria’s Lovers and Shy People); and the recent post Hollywood phase in Russia working with the obviously unusually talented co-scriptwriter Elena Kiseleva. The Postman’s White Nights marks the beginning of this exciting new phase in Konchalovsky’s career when he begins his collaboration with co-scriptwriter Elena Kiseleva. His second film with Kiseleva was Paradise (2016). He is currently working on a third film with Kiseleva, tentatively titled Il peccato. This critic could see parallels in this fascinating collaboration with that of the late Polish maestro Krzysztof Kieślowski’s collaboration with co-scriptwriter Krzysztof Piesiewicz, towards the evening of his respective career that resulted in his masterpieces Dekalog, The Three Colours trilogy, and The Double Life of Veronique.

The Postman’s White Nights is one of the finest works in recent years from Russia that can rub shoulders with the cinematic gems of Andrei Zvyagintsev. The depth of the film can be lost on a casual viewer while it can offer profound commentary on Russia for the mature viewer.

The rural Russian folk smoke endlessly, drink tea and vodka, and die often alone

What did Konchalovsky and Kiseleva do in The Postman’s White Nights that will stun the viewer? They scripted a tale set in a rural setting where the village school is in ruins; men are turning alcoholics and survive on pensions; newspapers, bread, medicines, are brought from the nearest town by a postman, an alcoholic in the past, currently a bachelor; with one other regular government employee posted in this village an unpopular lady mayor, living alone with a young son, because she fines folk caught trawling fish in the nearby water bodies to win brownie points with her unseen superiors.

Everybody smokes, but the postman has kicked his drinking habit
after it ruined his family life 

As in both the Konchalovsky and Kiseleva films, the scriptwriters build-up details that do not seem to add up midway but punches you at the end of the film. And if you blink you might miss that brilliant visual that says more than all the spoken words in the entire film. (There is a third partner in the Konchalovsky-Kiseleva films: cinematographer Aleksandr  Simonov). The Russian government obviously seems to have ignored the well being or the development of this rural township.  Not only is the school in ruins (possibly because there are not enough kids to attend school) but the folks there have only the TV sets as sources of entertainment. There are no tractors to till the land, only animal driven ploughs. From all evidence there is only one plough for the entire community. It is no wonder that people in that locality are driven to steal outboard motors of boats or trawl the water bodies for fish—an illegal act for all except the powerful generals who infrequently visit the area. But not very far away, Russia rocket/space power is quietly advancing ignoring the plight of the rural poor.

The good and the bad coexist in the rural world with the committed postman being the prominent do-gooder. The townsfolk do not go out of the way to help the postman when he faces a professional crisis with his motorboat’s engine stolen and thus not being able to discharge his duties for the rural folk.  In the world of email communication and mobile telecommunication, the postman fills a multitasking role. And he loves to do it. He has to file a theft report and wait for a replacement to be supplied.  The elders in the rural areas wistfully recall better days during the socialist regime and some even recall being in Vietnam during the war there.

The postman and the mayor's son

What most viewers are likely to miss out is an important decision taken by director Konchalovsky—all characters in the film’s rural setting are played by authentic villagers. The only professional actors are the two individuals who play the roles of the lady mayor and her delightful young son, Timur, who addresses the postman as “uncle.” Now that is incredible considering how the onscreen presence of the real postman engages the viewer.  One would mistake him for a professional actor able to convey so many complex emotions and body languages.  The Russian title of the film would read as the white nights of Aleksey Tryapitsyn, the name of man who plays the postman in the film. He is playing himself. Thus the entire script revolves around real people playing themselves.  But the script belongs to brilliance of Konchalovsky and Kiseleva.

Look at how they built the script. The entire background of the life of the postman is provided by Aleksey Tryapitsyn’s monologue as he sifts through old photographs of himself with the movie’s camera placed behind his head and shoulders.  Who is he talking to? The viewer. Such a monologue is never repeated until the end sequence where all or most of the village folk sit shoulder to shoulder on a ferry, their differences forgotten, without a word spoken, looking at the camera. Who are they looking at? The viewer.

The postman shares his childhood fears and tales with the
mayor's son.

The next striking visual is the repeated morning waking shot of the postman looking down at his boots on the carpet that he need to get into. He is living alone. There is no tap water; he has to fetch water in pails. The mayor and the postman wear camouflage army clothes—possibly because they are the only paid government employees.  His life is spartan.

The filmmaking trio emphasize rumination and natural beauty—the characters are constantly reflecting, outdoors and indoors.  Those sequences are with the music of Artemev as in the early Tarkovsky and Konchalovsky films.  And that leads on to the dark grey cat (“there are no cats in the village” the viewer is informed, and ergo the cat is a metaphor of a silent imaginary friend of the lonely postman—a cinephile will recall Tarkovsky used totemic images of a dog in Stalker).  The silent cat comes through the window, follows Aleksey Tryapitsyn during his imaginary visit to the school ruins, and finally sits on the stomach of the reclining postman. Does the cat have a common link with a cat’s images on the postman’s tablecloth?

Simonov's cinematography and Artemev's music can be stunning 

...and who wouldn't ruminate on contemplating the natural beauty of Russia
captured by cinematographer Simonov?

Apart from the good actions and the bad actions of the characters in The Postman’s White Nights, the overarching philosophy of the film is to accept this truth and reconcile what is left of one’s life with this attitude. The postman runs away but decides to return to the same community where, not surprisingly, he is still welcome. Konchalovsky “ran away” from USSR to work in Hollywood only to return to Russia with all its continuing faults and greatness. The film might be a great anti-smoking film with almost all the elders addicted to tobacco and evidently not healthy but the young boy also learns to smoke following the actions of the elders. But in the end segment, Konchalovsky, Kiseleva and Simonov are pointing out with their tongues firmly in their cheeks that Russia is launching spacecrafts and rockets not very far from the world of rural folk who can’t fish in the water bodies without asking for trouble or have any entertainment beyond state TV. And guess what, these Russians on the fringes of Russian society addicted to tobacco and vodka are still happy and content as long as they get their pensions.

Where does the strange sustenance of the Russians come from? From the ground, or from the rockets? A Shakespearean conundrum indeed!

It is a meaningful film for the serious film viewer, and richly deserving of the Venice film festival honour.

P.S. The Postman’s White Nights won the Best Director Award (Silver Lion) for Andrei Konchalovsky.  Detailed reviews by the author of Konchalovsky’s earlier films Runaway Train (1985) and Paradise (2016) were posted earlier on this blog. A link to the Konchalovsky written paper/lecture on the "Russian Soul" is provided on this blog and the contents are closely linked to the basic mood of the film. A critical line from that lecture reflects the essence of the film's ending "Why Russians can build a rocket and send it off into space, but not make a decent car?Mr Konchalovsky is also one of the author's 15 favourite active filmmakers.

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