Discovering Home Truths

For MTKsenia Rappaport plays an internationally acclaimed opera singer, Lyubov, in "Yury's Day."
It's hard to say who is the dominant figure behind Kirill Serebrennikov's new film "Yury's Day" (Yuryev Den) -- Serebrennikov himself or his screenwriter, Yury Arabov. The latter is best known to date for his work with acclaimed arthouse director Alexander Sokurov.

One of Arabov's films with Sokurov is titled "Mother and Son," and that title loosely describes the subject matter of "Yury's Day."

An internationally famous opera singer, Lyubov (Ksenia Rappaport in an outstanding performance), on the eve of departure for a career in the West, takes her 20-something-year-old son, Andrei, back to the town where she was born. She wants to leave him with an impression of Russia in its raw, provincial state, although he is reluctant to make the journey in the middle of snowy winter.

Exploring their destination, they reach the local Kremlin (the film was shot in and around Suzdal). Almost empty of visitors, it is staffed by three distinctly eccentric ladies of varying ages. Lyubov takes in the atmosphere of the place -- which is truly evocative, decaying but beautiful in its own way -- and then dozes off on a bench. When she wakes up, her son Andrei is nowhere to be seen.

In her attempts to find her son, Lyubov comes into contact with a whole range of characters, most of whom are sympathetic. The local policemen certainly aren't, at least initially. Later, though, Lyubov bonds with the police chief Sergeyev (Sergei Sosnovsky).

As she stays in the town, Lyubov's previous identity seems gradually to unwind. She builds up a friendship with one of the Kremlin attendant ladies that is depicted in a deeply natural and empathetic way.

The gap between Lyubov's glamorous musical career in Moscow and the world she encounters in the town could not be greater. Provincial life, especially in winter, comes across as fairly bleak. The film includes plenty of believable details that highlight its apparent absurdities. Some scenes come close to parody, although the film generally avoids this.

Serebrennikov and Arabov have both previously depicted Russian life in an absurdist way. Serebrennikov's previous film, "Playing the Victim," did this in an urban setting, while last year Arabov's "The Horror That Is Always with You" caught a provincial world similar to that of the new film. The film also recalls the style of postmodern author Vladimir Sorokin, who wrote the screenplay for "4."

Talk of Moscow and provinces may not be the right way to approach "Yury's Day." Through circumstances that seem almost mystical, its heroine is transported into a different emotional world, losing some things in her life, but finding others. She literally loses her operatic voice, to recover it finally in a church choir.

The scenes along the way to that conversion are occasionally brutal -- though probably no more than in reality -- taking in, among other things, a tuberculosis ward in a prison.

The music is superb throughout, capturing both beauty and anxiety, as does the cinematography by Oleg Lukichev. And Rappaport carries the burden of the role on her shoulders triumphantly.