WEBTAKES: My Joy
Reviewed by Louis Menashe 

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Produced by Heino Deckert and Oleg Kokhan; directed and written by Sergei Loznitsa; cinematography by Oleg Mutu; production design by Kirill Shuvalov; edited by Danielius Kokanauskis; starring Viktor Nemets, Vlad Ivanov, Maria Varsami, Vladimir Golovin, Olga Shuvalova, Aleksey Vertkov, Yuriy Sviridenko. Color, 127 min. In Russian with English subtitles. A Kino Lorber release.

The camera looks into a churning mass of concrete, which is then poured over a dead body. Much churning follows, but more of one’s stomach, I’m afraid, after this opening shot of My Joy, Sergei Loznitsa’s bleak—very bleak—tale set in present-day provincial Russia. Whose body this is, we’ll never learn. As with much else in the film, it’s the viewer’s job to not only connect the dots, but also to fill them in. Even then, some sidetracks will bear no relation to the main line.

This first feature by Loznitsa (born 1964) in a way mirrors his often elliptical documentary work. He favors the off-beat in a minimalist, narration-free, nonjudgmental style to evoke the Russian experience. Occasionally, there is a bit of humor, as in the metaphoric Today We Are Going to Build a House (1996)—not much construction goes on by a construction crew as they wander about smoking and chatting, but ta-da!, a building appears in the final frames. Revue (2008) is a compilation of documentary footage from different corners of Soviet life offering a vivid collective portrait of that vanished civilization. Blockade (2005) is a composite of scenes of grim endurance by Leningraders undergoing the 900-day siege of their city by the Germans during WWII.

Loznitsa turns to WWII—that colossal event so central to understanding the Soviet psyche and memory—in two brief flashback sequences reeking of malevolence. In the first, a story told by an old man (Vladimir Golovin), who suddenly appears out of nowhere in the cab of the truck driven by Georgy (Viktor Nemets), a military security officer robs a young lieutenant (Alexey Vertov) of the postwar loot (“trophies”) that he is bringing back home. In the second, an unannounced flashback, two Red Army stragglers enter the home of a school teacher and his young son in the early days of the war in occupied territory of the U.S.S.R. Both of those sequences end in violence, distant harbingers of the violence and malevolence that continue to haunt today’s Russia as pictured with unflinching brutality in My Joy. (Loznitsa is quoted as having said he decided to keep the absurdly inappropriate original title after he ditched the “sentimental” ending he had planned.)

Georgy is a young truck driver whose home life is unhappy. This we infer from a series of soundless frames as he prepares his own lunch while a morose wife fails to communicate from an adjoining room before he sets out on the day’s job, transporting sacks of flour. So what appears to be the start of a road movie already strikes a sour note. It gets worse, as he drives along Russia’s pitted roads across an uninviting dull, flat countryside, shot effectively by Loznitsa’s Romanian cinematographer, Oleg Mutu, best known for his work on The Death of Mr. Lazarescu and 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days. (Mutu is fond of capturing figures from behind, also of inserting important details at the edge of the frame away from the main action. Amid the film’s morbidity, there are as well some lovely, painterly scenes—a boy on a bench; silent riders in a horse-drawn cart; a woman letting her full, long hair down by a lighted fireplace. The last an homage to Tarkovsky? In one uncomfortable sequence, Mutu’s hand-held camera wades into a crowd of people, all unsmiling, at an open-air town market, a surly gallery of unhappiness.)

We don’t and won’t know much about Georgy, except that he’s a decent guy, judging by his kindness to a poor underage prostitute (Olga Shuvalova) soliciting at a traffic tie-up. She rewards his kindness by throwing money he gave her—not for sex, but for food—back in his face. He takes this in stride and moves on, only to be stopped by a highway patrolman who probably, as is the custom, wants to shake him down. Before that can happen, he gets back in his truck and hits the road.

The next stop—a wrong turn, it’s dark, he’s lost—ends badly for him, a victim of three tramps whose friendliness he misjudged. A blow to the head renders Georgy a brain-damaged mute, a bearded living corpse, barely surviving, thanks to a gypsy woman (Maria Varsami) who shelters him (and uses him for some sex play of her own). Consistent with the artfully circular structure of the film, the old man whose story we heard earlier finds Georgy lying at the side of an icy road and takes him in. Any spoiler alert would be superfluous: It’s clear by now that more horrors will ensue, leading back to the patrol officers’ station where an ugly encounter places a police major from Moscow (Vlad Ivanov) at the mercy of the local cops who show no respect for him or his rank, to put it mildly. A film-ending massacre winds down with Georgy tramping alone along a road into the darkness as the screen fades to black.

End of this road movie, post-Soviet style, where many roads lead nowhere, or lead to violence, in a land where kindness and innocence are met with a kick to the teeth. I think Loznitsa has added another documentary to his repertory, albeit in fiction form this time, about human relations in contemporary Russia. It’s a sad and sordid picture, and reminded me of the heartbreaking, hard-to-watch cruelty detailed in Alexander Balabanov’s Cargo 200, another powerful cinema comment on how Russians treat each other. One difference: Balabanov’s film is set in late Soviet times, when war raged abroad in Afghanistan. Other, domestic wars rage today in My Joy.

Louis Menashe is Professor Emeritus at Polytechnic Institute of New York University and author of Moscow Believes in Tears: Russians and Their Movies (New Academic Publishers, 2010).

Copyright © 2011 by Cineaste Magazine.

Cineaste,Vol.XXXVI, No.4, 2011