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November 19, 2004

Uncommon Senses

From: Moscow Times - Moscow,Russia - Nov 19, 2004

Casting blind or deaf actors may be relatively standard in Europe and the United States, but it hadn't been done much in Russia, until now.

By Tom Birchenough
Published: November 19, 2004

Setting a film in a home for the blind, deaf and dumb might sound like a recipe for yet another bleak, moralizing post-Soviet film, but Roman Balayan's "Bright is the Night" is an exception to the rule. Social commentary is simply not something the veteran Armenian-born, Ukrainian-based director does. If anything, "Bright is the Night" resembles his costumed 1995 adaptation of Ivan Turgenev's "First Love," with its lush pastoral setting and atmosphere of slow but unoppressive decay, and its understated treatment of the emotions that connect a small number of characters in close proximity. It's summer, and the majority of residents are away from the institution, leaving just a handful of staff and patients on the premises.

The main player is a young therapist, Alexei, played by Andrei Kuzichev, who was seen earlier this year in a supporting role in Vladimir Mashkov's "Papa." Though obviously devoted to his profession and to those he looks after, he has plenty of extra time during the summer months for wandering the forests and fishing in the lake with the institution's janitor, an amiable drunk named Petrovich (Vladimir Gostyukhin).

But Alexei's idyll is turned upside down with the arrival of an attractive medical resident, Lika, played by another relative newcomer, Olga Sutulova, whom he first encounters sunbathing in the nude and later discovers to share his enthusiasm for engaging patients by kindling their emotions for each other. Needless to say, Lika and Alexei's new-age therapeutic techniques raise the hackles of the institute's more traditional-minded director, Zinaida (Irina Kupchenko), as does their growing romantic involvement. Zinaida has long felt affection for Alexei, while rejecting the advances of the institution's other therapist, Dima, played by Alexei Panin.

If that sounds like a prelude to a major dramatic crisis, it isn't. Instead, the film is dominated by slow interactions between the therapists and their patients, through Braille and a kind of sign language made of hand and body contact. These scenes are made all the more effective for the fact that the amateur actors playing the patients are themselves either blind, deaf or dumb. Such versimilitude has become reasonably standard for Europe or the United States in art-house films, but is extremely rare in Russia to date.

Moving moments do emerge, particularly in the interactions between Alexei and Vitya, a young boy whose arrival at the institute precipitates the film's denouement -- if that's what the final scene can be called, given that the revelations themselves can't be spoken out loud. Climbing trees and running through the fields with Vitya, Alexei reaches the stage, crucial to his method, when he feels that his combination of touch and body sign language has allowed him to "hear" the voice of the child. Once that bond is established, Alexei is too devoted to abandon the lad, even if that means abandoning his love.

Production values are modest, and certainly reflect the limited funds available to this Russian-Ukrainian co-production. But cinematographer Bogdan Verzhitsky does a great deal with the assets he has. At a nighttime open-air dance scene toward the end, his camera centers on two patients who have obviously responded to Alexei's treatment and found emotional engagement with each other, contrasted with close-ups of eye contact between the other characters who have not.

The paradox with "Bright is the Night" -- a film that will catch some international attention, given the reputation of its director and his co-screenwriter Rustam Ibragimbekov -- is how little interest it will provoke among Russia's multiplex-going viewers today. The small late-afternoon audience with whom this critic watched the film was dominated by people well into their 40s, who responded well. Most likely, Balayan's film will find its place on a mainstream television broadcast sometime in the future, where it will appeal greatly to those viewers -- Soviet-era, yes -- for whom a trip to the cinema is no longer a possibility.

"Bright is the Night" (Noch Svetla) is playing in Russian at Dom Khanzhonkova.

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