Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Shultes

Dir: Bakur Bakuradze
Viewed From: The Balcony

First time director Bakur Bakuradze has made a movie that only a critic could love. After a nice reception at Cannes during the Director's Fortnight, he may have a more difficult time with the general audience. His Shultes is a very very slow story, unfolding at about the pace of your average Dardenne brothers' movie...except slower. As we watch the title character Lyosha Shultes in the opening twenty minutes, we observe: him sitting still, him watching television, him shopping, him watching television with his mother, him changing clothes, him riding an escalator, him knocking on a door. Finally...finally, he picks someones pocket.

I knew from the Prix d'Age d'or festival blurb that Shultes was a small-time thief, but you get the sense that this is meant to be a surprise, as we finally learn what it is he is doing during these long and dull days. Shultes is apparently a lonely and sad man, although the reasons why are hazy. He is good at his job - mostly stealing car keys from jacket pockets - but aside from brief conversations with his destitute brother and ailing mother, he doesn't have much of a life, and Bakuradze is miserly with details from the past (with good reason, it turns out).

Fortunately for both Shultes and the audience, he meets a miniature version of himself - a ten year old stoic pickpocket named Kostik played superbly by Ruslan Grebyonkin. This little guy is the life of the movie, and the scenes where Kostic and Shultes are robbing people are the best in the film. In what is probably intentional, the movie slows down considerably whenever Kostik is gone, as if to indicate how empty Shultes's life really is.

As the two develop a good working relationship, the movie still fails to tell us much about what they are doing. Associated criminals pop up here and there, some keys get stolen, some possibly tense moments are diffused quickly...and then we are back to watching Shultes watch television. At about the one hour mark, I was beginning to question whether the long and deliberate entry into Shultes's life was worth it, whether there was anything to it other than trying to get an audience to empathize with the character's apathy.

Well, there was.

At just about the breaking point in the audience's resolve (one person had already left, making an obvious display of reaching for his jacket, grunting, and slamming his seat), Bakuradze delivered with an amazing scene whose beauty and power stand in such stark contrast to the rest of the movie that it retroactively justifies the deliberate early pacing. It's almost an overwhelming scene, bringing up emotions that had been consistently beaten down in the viewer during the first hour of the film.

The reason this works so well is that the audience and Shultes experience the scene - a recording made on video by a girl who has just died - simultaneously. Shultes, who was not involved in her death, had managed to steal her camcorder earlier, and it's difficult to tell whether the onrush of emotions is getting to Shultes at the same time it hits the audience. Meant to identify with the main character all along - experiencing his boredom alongside him- are we now supposed to break with him? It's unclear really, but Shultes unaffected response might tell us that his apathy is the result of more than just a boring life. It's just an extraordinary cinematic moment - a scene that breaks open a rift between the character and audience after such an exacting process of creating empathy.

There is a bit of an anti-climax in the last twenty minutes, as a few "reveals" fill us in on what was really going in Shultes's life, but the movie could have ended with that scene. That's far from a complaint, however, as this is a fine debut. Bakuradze, who won the top prize at the main Russian film festival Sochi, may have the chance to break out, though an American release of this film is unlikely (The Russian debut isn't even until July 17th). Sad really, because this would be almost an impossible film to watch at home, taking the extraordinary attention span that is rare in the home, but automatic in the theater. Maybe Shultes - with his admirable ability to stare at the TV from his couch - could handle it.

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