THE SECOND CIRCLE (Aleksandr Sokurov, 1990)

A young man has returned home to bury his father. At one point he stares into the corpse’s eyes. In this staring contest, does anyone’s eyes—anything’s eyes—see any more clearly than anybody else’s? What do we know about anyone else’s suffering except that we share it, and somebody’s death doesn’t end what we share but merely turns a corner?
     The young man has numerous details to attend to—and more than he bargained for, this being the Soviet Union. The female official interrogating him is not being maternal—compassionate, understanding. She tells our protagonist—or is the corpse, finally, the protagonist?—that his father’s passport is under investigation! What about the burial? Cremation is best, he is advised. No, the boy protests; a plot of land awaits the burial of the body. This will help liberate the deceased’s spirit. Spirit? The official does not indicate that the State recognizes the existence of any spirit.
     Directing from a spare script by Yuri Arabov, Aleksandr Sokurov has turned Krug vtoroy into a dry reflection of a dry totalitarianism, one that denies the existence, much less the importance, of spirituality and doesn’t allow for anything so individualistic as a son’s grief. At least at the level of intention, it is a piece of anti-propaganda propaganda; but, formally, it resonates. It merges high contrast with color, when our eyes are used to identifying high contrast with black and white; what we see is, at once, color both sharp and drained, brutal and yet taken away and locked up somewhere: for the most part, brown and white. The result looks nothing like sepia, however; frames are too taxed by activity that disturbs the solitude of the mourner’s grief. Rather than nostalgic photographs, what is evoked is the idea of the continual burial that the living must undergo in such a State as this.
     Stark, pitiless, assaulting, Sokurov’s film can be only what it targets the State for being. You must decide whether this is enough for you.
     Why the “second circle,” where, according to Dante’s concept of Hell, carnal sinners are punished by endless tempests? I have only the glimmer of an idea. To purist Soviet eyes, perhaps, any sort of humanity appears profligate.
     One must keep in mind that Dante’s “second circle” of Hell is nearly bereft of light—and so is the sphere of his father’s death into which the protagonist enters, where the rare appearance of light is peripheral and intense. Perhaps one is morally sane so long as he or she must guess at Sokurov’s evil intentions.

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