While Ukrainian director Sergei Loznitsa has stoutly defended A Gentle Creature against claims that it’s critical of the Russian regime, it’s clear that he’s got his neighboring nation in mind during this esoteric and tiring Kafka-esque drama.
Sharing a title, but little else, with a Fyodor Dostoyevsky short story, A Gentle Creature chronicles an unnamed protagonist’s (Vasilina Makovtseva) journey to visit her husband in a Siberian prison after a package she sent him is returned. She runs into countless obstacles at every turn and the closer she gets to the heart of darkness, the further she seems from her goal.
Loznitsa has created a close to impenetrable central character, and her blank responses don’t serve the film well. Her namelessness is just the first hurdle. She doesn’t provide an easy way in to the alien nation and its corrupt practices, remaining stony faced throughout the film’s increasingly outrageous turns.
Matching the machinations at play in the establishment, the central character is the director’s pawn from the word “go.” She is rarely the first to enter Loznitsa’s long takes, or the last to leave. Considerable diversions are made to other groups of characters, for it to then be revealed that the unnamed character is witnessing this exchange take place.
In that way, she is used quite interestingly as a world-building conduit. But while this device does expand the scope and significance of the diegesis, it feels ponderous and meandering, ensuring the audience feels every minute of the film’s exhausting 143-minute running time.
It also takes away from the tension and dread of the lead character’s ordeal. By sidelining her so often in her own narrative, Loznitsa gains the sense that this is a wider problem, but loses the dark emotional depths of this hideous regime. Loznitsa frequently turns to absurdist humor amongst the hopelessness. Although, once again, this twisted levity always stems from those around the protagonist and never from her.
Loznitsa and his cinematographer, Oleg Mutu, shoot in widescreen, which nicely matches the long rectangles of the prison and the train carriages. The wide frame mimics the aesthetics of an epic, but Loznitsa’s camera is used in a low-key manner. His shots are composed, often close to static, and they take in information rather than dictating it.
The community of this prison town serves as a scathing satirical mirror for Vladimir Putin’s government. But the lead’s lack of awareness and understanding for their oppressive rule alienates rather than relates. Anyone who’s even half aware of Russia’s reputation can comprehend the corruption, but she’s frustratingly oblivious.
I did appreciate A Gentle Creature’s fairytale weirdness and conviction to its oppressive tone, but Loznitsa’s film just doesn’t hold together, and the reliance on crooked fantasy softens its message. The final act developments, in particular, don’t hit the mark and risk leaving the audience feeling cheated. Sergei Loznitsa goes for absurdist satire, but, unfortunately, the joke’s on him.
Benedict Seal (@benedictseal) is a UK-based film journalist for the likes of Bloody Disgusting, VODzilla.co and New On Netflix.