Successfully executing a ‘descent into hell’ film is a challenge for even the most skilled and imaginative of directors. Not only does it require an atmosphere that completely enraptures an audience, but you also run the risk of entering numbing misery porn territory. Sergey Loznitsa’s A Gentle Creature unfortunately falls into that latter category, especially in its end stretch, but it has enough power and strangeness in its arsenal to mark it out as a unique and occasionally exciting entry into the genre.
Making the descent is an unnamed woman (Vasilina Makovtseva) – the gentle creature of the title – trying to deliver a food parcel to her husband in prison. Along the way, she faces setback after setback at the hands of rowdy drunks, corrupt military officials, and jobsworth post office workers, as well as trials altogether more surreal. As a dissection of modern Russian society, Loznitsa’s film is hardly going to be welcomed by authorities, his take on the post-Soviet Federation a bubbling mess of self-serving cowardice and sweaty, incompetent rage. It lacks the satirical smarts of Andrey Zvyagintsev’s Loveless and Leviathan, but is still a nastily effective portrayal of a nation past the brink.
Early scenes of packed-out buses and government centres are so claustrophobic and grim that you can practically taste the stale air. It’s in this static, bureaucratic hell where A Gentle Creature shines, putting you in the protagonist’s shoes as every new influx of people brings more chaos, the causers of which seem almost completely oblivious to their surroundings. Everyone feels the need to invade the conversations of others with horrible, blackly funny anecdotes of death and disease, and a raucous-yet-depressing party scene is dripping with nauseous anxiety. The gentle creature is a woman of few words, a trait that makes her practically heroic in this world where everyone else has far too many.
This stoicism, though, hardly lends itself to an interesting lead, with Makovtseva’s facial expression changing roughly three times over the course of the film. While some might argue that it’s impressively internalised or subtle acting, the fact of the matter is that it’s rarely compelling. Of the often grotesque supporting cast, there are some standout performances, especially from Liya Akhedzhakova as a harried human rights activist, as the gentle creature makes her way through the backwards town that surrounds her husband’s prison.
This journey, though initially compelling, eventually becomes frustrating. No one in the town can actually help with anything, but the gentle creature always trusts them enough to go along with their schemes before being sent back to square one. What starts as desperate hope ends up as annoying naivety, and the complete lack of progress means the near two and half hour runtime eventually drags. A third act turn into the more sharply surreal is fascinating, but even this loses its focus with a meandering, hallucinatory dinner party that turns into a brutal and prolonged gang rape scene that is simply sour. A Gentle Creature, with its intermittent sickly power, is not a film I can outright disregard, but nor is it one that I will ever find myself recommending.