Set in the late 1990s, this bruising first film from Russian director Kantemir Balagov shines a light on Jewish family strife and domestic tensions in the Northern Caucasus. But this is more a story of mothers and daughters than fathers and sons. Darya Zhovner produces an outstandingly varied performance as 24-year-old Ila, imbuing the role with fortitude and smiles one moment, delirium and tears the next. She is remarkably convincing as both foolhardy delinquent and playful youth.
A tomboy mechanic working for her kindly but occasionally brutal father Avi (Atrem Cipin), Ila spends her time fixed under a car, permanently clad in woolen jumper and dungarees. Her outgoing and independent demeanour is at odds with her prim, conservative mother Dina (Olga Dragunova). Ila’s brother David (Veniamin Kats), with whom she shares a strange, quasi-erotic relationship, is engaged to be married. At the celebration meal, Dina insists Ila wear a demure dress rather than her usual attire. Ila resists a little before assenting but this small moment prefaces the larger fissures to come. She deliberately rebels, refusing her mother’s attempts to marry her off to a nice Jewish boy. Instead, she goes for the colossal Zalim (Nazir Zhukov) from the rival Kabardian tribe – a man always adorned with baseball cap and Adidas tracksuit – in a move partly designed to upset and outrage her parents. Things come to head with a frightening abduction, and immediate fears gives way to financial and reputational concerns. Such implications may prove terminal for the family.
The film is longer than needed, and some otherwise startling scenes showing Zalim’s intoxicated friends watch horrific war atrocities on TV are undermined by some poor lighting and suspect staging. Balagov’s camera is aptly intrusive at the most intimate moments and the gradual deterioration of Dina’s mental state – her desolation mounts as she disconnects from her children – is painfully captured. There are indications of a fresh start, but the film leaves us with a freezing picnic and a desperate embrace. Family relationships are rarely certain.
Tesnota does not have a UK release date yet.
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Watch the trailer for Tesnota (with French subtitles) here: