The following is one of the entries from my 100 Greatest Films from the Soviet Union, Russia, Ukraine and Eastern Europe list, which I invite you to visit on this site if you haven’t already done so. — Dennis
Aleksandr Sokurov paid tribute to Andrei Tarkovsky with Dni zatmeniya, which is loosely based on Billion Years Before the End of the World by Boris and Arkadi Strugatsky, on whose Roadside Picnic Tarkovsky had based his Stalker (1979). Like Tarkovsky’s film, its futuristic vision actually refers to Soviet totalitarianism—or, rather, its emotional legacy.
A young Russian doctor in a remote Asian outpost, Dmitri Malianov lives disconnected from family, locals, himself. He attends to patients who may be plagued by something from outer space. Piles of papers and photographs infest his flat; unwanted intrusions and visits abound; he keeps losing friends. His off-hours research into juvenile hypertension among believers underscores his own lack of religious faith. When he tries engaging the outside world, it is likely to be with children. He breaks up a street quarrel between two small boys, who turn on him instead, in an hilarious long-shot. With another boy, who mysteriously shows up on his doorstep asking to be taken care of, he develops a close, affectionate relationship (actor Aleksei Ananishnov speaks to the child with the same tender cadences he would enlist in Sokurov’s 1997 Mother and Son); but then one day bodiless arms snatch the boy up away into the sky. This glorious hommage to the subjective balloon passage in Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev (1966) suggests that the child, rather than real, is Dmitri’s own recollected child-self. Their separation is the most painful evidence of Dmitri’s alienation.
Fear is pervasive, with people constantly admitting “I am afraid” or asking, “Are you afraid?” Yet, this masterpiece is nimble, playful, very funny. Formally, the film amazes. To its sepia-like frames and abundance of wide-angle shots Sokurov has applied a slightly stalled, hiccuping motion that distances us as correlative to Dmitri’s distance from a satisfying life.
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