Dir. Boris Khlebnikov, Alexei Popogrebsky. Russia. 2003. 100mins.
One of the nicest surprises at Moscow, this unprepossessing but remarkably sensitive road movie will most likely have a very busy festival career - and not just because it took the Grand Jury Special Prize and the Silver St. George. Rather, few selectors will able to resist Koktebel's simple, straightforward, unadorned approach and its understated, laconic style, as it follows an 11-year-old boy and his father on a 1,000-mile journey by foot from Moscow to the Black Sea. Made by two young film-makers, one who studied film, the other psychology, whose only previous experience has been shorts they directed together, it should find receptive eyes and specialised niche slots practically everywhere it will be shown.
The film starts with a boy (Puskepalis) and his father (Chernevich) already on their way, as a barking dog scares them out of their resting place for the night, a water drainage pipe under a road. As they walk it becomes clear that this is an improvised trip, with only one definite purpose: to reach their final goal of Koktebel, a seaside resort in Crimea.
With neither money nor means of travel, they survive by the occasional odd job. They fix the roof of an old man's (Kucherenko) isolated dacha, but when the job is finished he refuses to pay up and accuses them of stealing his money. About to take them to the police at gunpoint, his firearm accidentally goes off, wounding the father, who is tended by a woman doctor (Steklova). She seems willing to take father and son in, but the boy, desperate to reach Koktebel, which in his mind equates with freedom, loses patience and takes off on his own.
As the pair slowly proceed southwards, the trip's purpose is filtered in bit by bit. The man is an aerodynamics engineer, who broke down after his wife's death, started drinking and lost control of his life. Although it is never spelled out, leaving Moscow and heading for his sister's in Koktebel, marks a chance for rehabilitation and to assume again his responsibilities, possibly even build a new life, which he tries to do during the trip.
For his son, Koktebel is the launch-pad where he will finally spread his own wings and allow propitious winds to carry him off, a point reinforced with references to the structure of wings, air currents and aerial views.
In a variation on Truffaut's 400 Blows finale, the last shot shows the boy sitting on an abandoned pier by the sea, gazing into the horizon as his father comes to sit next to him as both face the unknown mysteries of life.
Surprisingly self-assured and confident for first-time directors, Khlebnikov and Popogorsky adopt an unhurried pace that perfectly suits this kind of journey. They often using long, immobile shots, in which the characters either start as hardly discernible points before gradually approach or vice versa. Care is taken to place characters amid the perspective of the landscape, from the vast chilly northern spaces, basked with brown-grey light to brighter open vistas in the south. With one exception, there are never more than three or four people in any frame, while at times it is left empty. Acting is on the subdued side, with a strong presence required more than actual performances.
Ultimately, the film is as much about the relationship between father and son as it is about life in the Russian countryside, and about the people living there, regardless of first impressions. Keeping the dialogue down to an essential minimum, Khlebnikov and Popogorsky dote on visual details, such as the boy looking at the back of a girl's head, that often speaks louder than several pages of conversation. And laudably, they trust the audience to understand what they are talking about.
Prod co: Roman Borisevich, Cinematography Dept of the Ministry of Culture of the Russian Federation
Prod co/int'l sales: PBOUL
Scr: Khlebnikov, Popogrebsky
Cinematography: Shandor Berkeshi
Ed: Ivan Lebedev
Prod des: Gennady Popov
Music: Chick Corea
Main cast: Gleb Puskepalis, Igor Chernevich, Vladimir Kucherenko, Agrippina Steklova, Alexander Ilyin, Engeniy Sytyi