Dir: Artur Aristakisjan. 2001. Russia 126mins
Part documentary, part feature film, compelling and deeply disturbing, Artur Aristakisjan's A Place On Earth, is a portrait of a Moscow commune in which squatters, beggars, cripples and the insane become actors in a metaphysical examination of the human need for love and spiritual healing. Six years in the making, the film features only one actor (Khaev) among the cast of Moscow homeless echoing Aristakisjan's 1994 documentary The Palms, which dealt with the homeless in his native Moldavia. However, here they become actors in a poetic drama in the Russian literary tradition, as they follow a Christ-like leader who promises them love but brings them only more suffering. The tough subject matter and frank portrayal of sex will turn off many viewers, making this a hard sell commercially, but like his earlier documentary Palms this film is destined for a wide audience on the global festival circuit and has already been received dozens of invitations.
Aristakisjan has lived on the streets himself and his approach is neither condescending nor sentimental. He has made a film intended as a bridge between the viewer and the social outcasts whose story he weaves into a religious drama.
In the opening scene a mentally disturbed outcast Maria (Verdi) is wandering the streets of Moscow when she finds her saviour in the shape of Johnny, (Khaev) the leader of a commune who takes her in. Johnny, who is determined to change the system by giving love to the unloveable, takes in the homeless and the emotionally and physically damaged, giving them shelter in a squat where he believes they will be healed by sharing their love. The collection of drug addicts, cripples, invalid children, babies, dogs and troubled young people searching to find themselves make up a family that cares for each other.
However, as the community becomes increasingly squalid and dysfunctional, Johnny's ideal of a social order built on love deteriorates into bedlam. In an effort to prove the strength of his beliefs to his followers, Johnny castrates himself in front of them, but his sacrifice is futile, failing to stem the dissolution of the community. The remaining inhabitants of the squat are finally driven out by a brutal police raid leaving them to return to the streets without hope or salvation.
Aristakisjan shot the film on an almost non-existent budget on the Moscow streets, using the ruined former home of The Master And Margarita author Mikhail Bulgakov as the location for the squat. With a camera style that echoes the Dogma manifesto, he manages to create an almost physical contact with reality. The final police raid is based on a real raid on the commune during the shooting which Aristakisjan paid them to return and re-enact so he could catch it on film. Rich in religious imagery but devoid of sentimentality, the scene where the women bathe a hideously deformed cripple and dry him with their hair is ritualistic and freshly contemporary at the same time.
Open sexual intimacy in the claustrophobic environment of the squat throughout the film, especially in scenes in front of children, will limit its audience, as will the unappealing nature of its characters and the subject matter, but the film will be widely appreciated on the global and arthouse festival circuits.
Prod co: ABA Studio
Russia dist: Intercinema Art Agency
Int'l sales: Intercinema Art Agency
Prod: Boris Ajrapetyan
Scr: Artur Aristakisjan
Cinematography: Grigory Yablochnikov
Ed: Natalya Topkova
Sound: Kirill Vasilenko
Music: Robert Wyatt
Cast: Anna Verdi, Vitaly Khaev, Roman Atlasov