Deftly weaving between politically ambitious documentary projects and brooding, chunky dramas exploring the malignant side of Russian society, Ukraianian director Sergei Loznitsa follows Austerlitz, last year’s documentary on concentration camp tourism, with the fictional A Gentle Creature, an impressively morose, dense, and totalizing immersion into the dehumanizing absurdity of the Russian prison system. But in fact we don’t see anything of the inside of a prison in A Gentle Creature, for while the goal of the unnamed, middle-aged heroine (Vasilina Makovtseva) is to visit her incarcerated husband—a visit inspired mainly because a care package was sent back to her with no explanation as to its rejection—her fruitless journey to the prison town is a Hogarthian roundelay of indifferent, dismissive or abusive personnel and exploitative locals. Makovtseva’s maze-like path through a social microcosm (and ecosystem) of functionaries, leeches and profiteers is an ordeal that begins about giving her husband—sentenced for murder, she admits early on, before later saying less and less about him or herself—some treats, but soon surreally devolves into her total inability to determine even if he’s in this prison at all. Or, indeed, if he exists.
With Loznitsa’s masterful direction that covers entire scenes of dynamic group interaction in single long shots on buses, in waiting rooms, and at bars thick with miserable, downtrodden or besotted people able only to suffer or exploit, their conversations rich in argot, anger and dismay dancing around the soundtrack, the film is positing modern Russia as a prison itself—something in fact one of the countless cynics in the film proclaims out loud. A pleasantly unexpected but ploddingly realized dream sequence Makovtseva has, in which many of the passing characters in her journey testify to their involvement in her suffering, confirms that it’s not just the government apparatus at fault, but rather that the entire society is guilty of abetting such obfuscation, cruelty, selfishness and a near complete absence of compassion. The vision is uniformly bleak, but Loznitsa’s frame, as in his recent political documentaries Maidan, The Event and Austerlitz, is at least itself a force of analytic compassion, able to gather people together, even in unhappiness, and ask the hard questions.