Dir. Alexey Popogrebsky. Russ, 2007. 108mins.
Flying solo for the first time after the resounding success of his debut Koktebel (directed with Boris Khlebnikov), Alexey Popogrebsky has opted for an intimate, closely observed story with Simple Things which, just as its title indicates, refrains from more ambitious metaphors and prefers to stay on a purely realistic level. Tackling simple everyday issues with great care for detail and an intelligent cast that never steps out of line, he may take too long to warm up his audience but once he does, they discover it was worth the wait.
Sergei Puskepalis, in the lead, is a natural who possesses the kind of quiet, unforced demeanor which makes an audience automatically sympathise with him, while Leonid Bronevoy, an authentic icon of the Russian acting profession, provides ample support playing a role very similar to his persona in real life. Popogrebsky's unhurried approach in the end wins out; festivals should have a look while sales for art circuits and the numerous Russian communities around the world is a distinct possibility.
At Karlovy Vary Puskepalis was given the prize for best actor while Bronevoy was awarded an honourable mention from the jury, adding to its haul at Sochi (best director, best film and Puskepalis again for best actor)
Sergei Maslov (Puskepalis), an under-paid anesthetist in a Moscow state hospital, takes life one day at a time, as bleak and unpromising as it seems, and does his best to cope with it. He works long hours for little pay, occupying one room in a flat that he and his wife (Kamynina) share with a Georgian driver and a senile woman. His teenage daughter (Kutueva) has run away to her friends, his driving licence has just been revoked and his occasional girlfriend tells him her parents haven't gone to their dacha, so he can't pay her a visit.
As if that wasn't enough, his wife informs him that she is pregnant and she intends to keep the baby, despite his opposition. Luck smiles on Maslov when, on the same day, a patient pays extra to be treated with better drugs; even better, he finds an additional source of income when he is appointed to take care of an old pensioned actor (Bronevoy), once a big star, who lives alone in an old apartment, full of ancient furniture, old paintings and countless memories.
Maslov moves from each of these poles of his existence to the next, driven for the most part by necessity and dictated by the objective conditions of his life. Gradually he establishes an unusual relationship with the old man in his charge, wavering between giving in to his wife and rejecting her.
He is also beaten up by one of his daughter's companions when he tries to convince her to go home asks a colleague to replace him in the operating room when he realises the young man about to be operated on has little chance of surviving; and keeps fortifying himself with hearty doses of vodka to dull the senses.
With every new sequence, this portrait of an ordinary person takes on additional depth and draws in the audience, whether it accepts Maslov's conduct or not. The encounter between the harried carer and the sneering former idol in need of medical supervision starts on an unpleasant tone and develops, with its ups and downs, into what remains till the very end a gruff, but very real, relationship.
Meanwhile the penultimate scene, which Maslov shares with his daughter, turns out to be an unexpected, heartwarming reconciliation, exceedingly well played by both actors and showing the young generation to be less vapid and useless than Maslov.
If Puskepalis and Bornevoy carry much of this picture's weight on their shoulders through the sheer size of their parts, there is plenty to be said for Kamynina and Kutueva, both capable of achieving more by raising an eyebrow or looking sideways than many an actress can do with the help of a six-page monologue.
Attentive but unobtrusive camera work allows the actors full freedom, while editing resists the temptation to rush the first part of the film through, allowing all the necessary foundations to be laid before getting into the real thing.
Koktebel Film Company
Koktebel Film Company