Gradually this year in Asian Movie Pulse, we have started dealing with the whole of the continent in its wider sense, from Turkey to Japan. One of the best parts of this expansion is dealing with Russian films, who offer a completely different approach to cinema than what we were used to when dealing with S and SE Asian cinema. “The Pencil” is one of the best samples of this uniqueness.
The film revolves around Antonina, an artist from Saint Petersburg, who has spent her life in the shadow of her husband Sergey, a star artist, and one of the leaders of the opposition. Their marriage is already dead, but a completely lost in life Antonina decides to follow him to the Russian taiga where he is imprisoned for his political crimes, in a town where almost everybody works either in the local pencil factory or in the prison. Sergey urges her to leave, but she decides to make a difference in the community by taking a job as an art teacher at a local school. Eager to teach the children about the importance of art and an alternative way of thinking, she jumps head on in her work, at least until she stumbles upon reality. In this case, reality has the shape of one of the students, twelve-year-old Misha, who bullies and tortures his classmates without any kind of resistance from either faculty or parents, since everyone seems to be afraid of his brother, a local gang leader. Antonina decides to go against the boy and the situation, but soon realizes that her struggle is a lonely one. Violence erupts and eventually Misha’s brother is released from prison.
Natalya Nazarova directs a film that works on a number of levels. The first and the most obvious one is a critique on the regime, starting with the reasons and the way Sergey’s imprisonment commenced, and concluding with a rather heated monologue of one of Antonina’s colleagues, who seems to express Nazarova’s opinion in the most eloquent fashion. The way the system works, particularly in the remote areas where the law cannot reach properly also gets its share of criticism, with the film presenting the school, the authorities and even the locals as people unable, but also unwilling to react in order to change their situation, even despite the fact that the ones in danger are their children. The fact that the sole wish everyone in the area has is to have a home with heat and electricity is also critiqued harshly, with Nazarova paralleling the locals with the pencils in the factory, as all are the same.
Antonina functions as a metaphor for hope, with her desperate efforts to change the situation in the area providing the only solace for a number of children, who seem abandoned by everyone. Nazarova’s perspective, however, is quite pragmatic, with her approach giving a rather dramatic essence to the movie, as Antonina’s struggle is met with opposition in every step, and from different sources.
This combination of hope, struggle, and pragmatism is what gives the narrative its main form, and actually carries the movie to the end, where it finds its apogee in the rather dramatic but also quite hopeful finale that seems to state that change can happen, but not without sacrifices.
The film also functions as a thriller for a large part of its duration, and this aspect also finds its zenith in the last part, where agony really soars.
On a secondary level, Nazarova makes a number of comments regarding female nature, although the rest of the elements of the narrative rather overshadow this part.
DP Andrey Naydenov uses handheld cameras quite frequently, in an effort that makes the film look like a documentary, while inducing it with a distinct sense of realism. The almost dystopian setting of the taiga is presented with equal realism, while the huge logs used to make the pencils are depicted in all their ominous glory, eventually becoming a crucial part of the narrative. Olga Proshkina and Pavel Kuprikov’s editing gives the film a medium pace, that suits its aesthetics quite nicely, while there are a number of scenes where the speed picks up, adding to the entertainment the production offers.
Nadezha Gorelova gives an impressive performance as Antonina, highlighting the heroic nature of her character in every step, without, though, neglecting to show a distinct vulnerability on occasion, particularly when she is alone with the only friend she has in the town. Nazarova anchored the film on her, having her present in almost every frame, and she delivered in impressive fashion.
“The Pencil” is a film that combines thriller aesthetics with pointy social commentary artfully, thus succeeding in providing both entertainment and food for thought.