Thursday, August 4, 2011

MIFF session 11: Innocent Saturday

Dark blue night. Young Valery, an industrial trainer, walks nervously along a walkway in a gigantic industrial complex. He is recognised by someone in a passing car. They exchange urgent but fragmented information. Valery is taken through part of the interior of the complex by a colleague who warns him against panic. He stumbles into a meeting of men variously dressed industrially or in business suits. The talk is apocalyptic. One says it will be worse than Hiroshima. Another rejoins that what they need is another Nagasaki. Ukraine, spring 1986, welcome to Chernbobyl.

A particularly  bullish apparatchik shouts his way into control of the talk and, seeing the lowly instructor, makes him swear an oath of silence. He is then free to go. He walks back to town as dawn breaks and is accosted by another colleague who seems to have been hit with the medieval martyr stick. He has been to the core, seen the great power slowly waking through exposure. It was so beautiful and humbling that he felt like diving in. Valery leaves him on the road. The inspired man starts coughing. We won't see him again.

A little later, Valery bustles his way into his girlfriend Vera's worker's dorm, pulling her by the elbow from the line of them as they file out. He explains the situation hurriedly and begs her to dress and go with him to the train station. Their run to the station, using shaky cam and it wayward focus is strong visualisation of a panic kept secret in a crowd. It's spring, labour day and everyone is happily in short sleeves in the sunshine. Only two people among them know that the sunshine and fresh air will soon turn to poison. They reach the station in time to see what will surely be the last train pull out and leave them there, sentenced to either cataclysm or decades of slow death. We linger on their faces. We need to.

What follows is a number of small circumstances that contrive to get Vera and Valery into a wedding party and keep them there. He fights through the rejoicing crowd the same way he might have to fight through another very soon. This drunken one is no better than the imaginable survivalist one as both are large groups of people continually colliding in celebration of life but condemned to death.

This party is where the majority of the film takes place and while it can drag the sense of hopelessness that its claustrophobia grinds soon becomes the central point of the film. These people have nowhere to go that will free them from their doom. This might be enough but as Valery rejoins his old cronies in the wedding band and plays part of their gig with them, another theme emerges which touches on the use made by the Soviet system of fear and personal gain achieved through betrayal. Valery, like the machine he's bolted himself into, uses his knowledge now the same way he once did. Much of the film sees him trying to undo the opportunism of his past through good  works but he also knows, as one of his old bandmates points out, he might be executed for inciting a panic. The final sequence is a compression of freedom and despair and features an extraordinary fadeout device that should be in flimmaking textbooks for its simplicity and power.

We are then treated to a mercifuly few consequential titles of the fate of the people of Chernobyl which are less than necessary in light of the abstracted account of it we have just seen. If that fade had given to a few seconds silent blackness before the credits rolled, its power would have said more than the words on the screen. A small pick but a pick nonetheless.

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