The most effective way to highlight the harshness of a conservative society is to throw in a fantastical element in its midst, as writer-director Ivan Tverdovsky proves in his latest picture, Zoology. In this Russian fable, outsider Natasha discovers that she has grown a tail. Surreal yet raw at its emotional core, the film exposes the fragility of humans with the simple introduction of a foreign element, namely the harmless tail, which proves to be enough to unsettle an entire society.
The movie begins with the sombre mood of everyday reality in a coastal town. Natasha is a middle-aged zoo worker living with her elderly, superstitious mother. Her dull administration job is made more unpleasant by the constant bullying of her colleagues. The monotony of her life is then violently shaken by the sudden protrusion of a long tail. Initially perturbed by the abnormality, Natasha hides it and turns to a perplexed doctors. Once she grows accustomed to the tail and finds comfort in the friendly attitude of young radiologist Petya, however, the new experience turns into a catalyst for total transformation.
The premise of the story inevitably brings Kafka to mind. The animalistic quality creates discomfort but ultimately awakens a sense of freedom and an increasingly disinhibited attitude. The film moves along quietly, using a cool palette, frequent close-ups and the silence characteristic of a small seaside town. In spite of its subdued tone, Zoology offers food for thought at every step. From bullying as it manifests in the adult world to the community’s perception of misfits, from the image of older women in a traditional setting to self-expression in the sexual realm, Tverdovskiy manages to cover a whole range of social anxieties in one go.
The downside of the central concept providing such a multifaceted metaphor is that there is a sense of vagueness about the protagonist’s inner conflict. Nevertheless, the story is intriguing and the characters have a fable-like quality that is ably expressed by the cast. Natalya Pavlenkova is enrapturing in the lead role as she goes from frump to vamp without losing sight of her character’s essence.
Perhaps the story is too densely populated with underlying messages about repression and self-acceptance, but the understated tone and surreal touch make Zoology an absorbing and truly stimulating offering from Russia.
Zoology is released nationwide on 22nd September 2017.
Watch the trailer for Zoology here: