Some great movies have been made about complete physical and social isolation—127 Hours being a recent high-profile example. Films set in polar regions have a natural leg-up in that direction, of course, exceptional ones including Mikhail Kalatozov's (The Cranes Are Flying, I Am Cuba) staggering 1959 Siberian adventure The Letter That Was Never Sent and Akira Kurosawa's 1975 one Dersu Uzala. More recent examples are Larry Fessenden's underrated Alaska-set, Iceland-shot eco-horror The Last Winter and Werner Herzog's marvelous Antarctica documentary Encounters at the End of the World.
It's well known you can easily go crazy in such places, as if the extreme adversarial reality of nature—whether manifested in snow blindness, insanely uninterrupted sunlight/sun absence, the ease with which one can freeze to death, or that unstoppable eating machine known as polar bears—were hellbent on proving just how tiny individual mankind really is in its larger scheme. Some landscapes you don't mess with. They will mess with you, unless you are very, very careful.
The new Russian film How I Ended This Summer, now on SFFS Screen at the Sundance Kabuki, is a nifty addition to this cinematic lineage. Its only two characters are two meteorologists stationed on an Arctic Ocean island. Recent university graduate Pavel (Grigory Dobrygibn) is young, earring'd, and full of fun—he treats their desolate location as a playground, finding amusement wherever he can. Forty-something veteran Sergei (Sergei Puskepalis), who's got a wife and child his work separates him from for months at a time, probably hasn't utilized the term “fun” since the Soviet Union collapsed. He finds Pavel, with his videogames and punk rock iPod tunes and goofy humors, too frivolous to command the respect he demands for himself.
When Sergei is off fishing (not an officially condoned activity), Pavel takes a message from HQ of awful import to his superior. Several days will pass between that event and the arrival of a ship sent to bear Sergei home. That's many hours in which relations between the two men get sketchier, paranoid, then frankly predatory.
The narrative gamble Popogrebsky takes is that we'll buy Pavel as immature enough—and his situation increasingly awkward enough—that he hesitates telling Sergei dreadful news until that withholding can only seem inexcusable, and their discomfort as coworkers turns into darkening mutual peril.
This is indeed “summer,” though no one's wearing tank tops—even indoors, they're in parkas and fleece. The unforgiving elements become an ever more hostile player in a drama you suss early on is not going to end happily. At nearly two and a quarter hours, this film takes its time slowly pulling tension taut. Will remorseless nature consume these men whole, or can they destroy each other first? The answer may be long in coming, but getting there is far from dull, and the outcome is not one you'll predict.
Strangely, Summer wasn't Russia's official submission to the Best Foreign Film Oscars this year—that was The Edge, an enjoyable but very old-fashioned, Siberia-set period melodrama likely more popular at home but less suited to find favor abroad. The Edge (not to be confused with another movie involving scary hungry bears, the same-titled 1997 Alaska thriller with Alec Baldwin and Anthony Hopkins) is fun. But Summer is visually striking, eerily quiet, and leaves a deeper imprint.
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