Berlin 2011 Review: V SUBBOTU (Innocent Saturday)

rating: 4.5

V Subbotu (Innocent Saturday) is a hyperactive and claustrophobic drama about the plight of an individual following the Chernobyl disaster in April of 1986. Valerij (played by the brilliantly named Anton Shagin) is a loyal Communist party member and worker at the ill-fated nuclear power station who happens to be present on the night things take a turn for the very bad indeed. When he learns that the neighbouring town of Pripyat will soon be exposed to deadly levels of radiation, he is sworn to secrecy by government officials who are keen to avoid a mass panic by concealing the horrific truth - a decision that would come to cost thousands of lives over the following decades. What follows Valerij's discovery is one full day before the news becomes public in which he will try (and fail) to escape the city - running constantly with the camera almost always in extreme, disorientating close-up on his face, which wears an expression of anger, fear and denial at all times. There is one fantastic display of virtuosity as the camera goes from Valerij and through legs on a crowded dance floor until it finds the feet of his love, panning up to her face as she sings a rock n' roll number on stage. But otherwise the film doesn't stray too far from Valerij. Alexander Mindadze's oppressive style of direction puts the viewer in the same uncomfortable position as his protagonist. You feel unable to escape and paranoid at the threat you can not see. There are very few occasions where the camerawork affords you an establishing shot or even a medium shot, and even fewer times when it is held still. This isn't a conventional disaster movie and we don't ever get to glimpse the full horror of the disaster or the eventual mass exodus from the town. This is rather the intimate story of one person struggling with his fears and desires as he grapples with the knowledge that the cheery oblivious, innocents around him - who are busy getting married, playing football and taking walks - are all likely doomed. Through it all something compels him to stay in the town. At first it is the gorgeous, bright-eyed Vera played by Svetlana Smirnova-Marcinkiewicz, who he tries to convince to escape with him on the next train. Yet a heel brakes on her shoe and they miss their chance. After some shopping for the latest imported Romanian heels, they again look to escape only for Vera to again cause delay when looking for her passport. Then comes an obligation for her to play in her band with some of their mutual friends - she can't get out of it as they were paid up front and so they remain in danger even longer, and you feel the hours slipping away and with them hope of survival. And so it goes on, all the while getting more frustrating until a friend of Valerij comments at the film's midway point that there is a metallic taste in his mouth. From then on all hope seems to fade and excessive drinking and the playing of loud rock music becomes Valerij's new priority. This is the film's least satisfying period as it descends in drinking and shouting, but V Subbotu is always far from tiresome and is one of the most original and inspired films I've seen so far at this festival. To reveal all these plot details is not to give anything away. The hopelessness of Valerij's escape is built into the story from the outset and it is the very fact that he is trapped, by a mixture of circumstance and maybe morality, that drives the film's disconcerting mood of hysteria right up until its haunting final shot.
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A regular film and video games contributor for What Culture, Robert also writes reviews and features for The Daily Telegraph, and The Big Picture Magazine as well as his own Beames on Film blog. He also has essays and reviews in a number of upcoming books by Intellect.