Tuesday, December 15, 2020

Victor Kossakovsky's much-heralded but little-seen doc, THE BELOVS, comes to Film Forum

A dog licks his master's face with a long, wet tongue -- adorable and, considering how long this goes on, just a little weird. Then we get the dog's master's explanation, which sounds both correct and intuitive, followed by "Here's my message to humankind: Leave each other in peace!" So begins THE BELOVS (Belovy) a documentary made back in 1992 by Russian filmmaker 
Victor Kossakovsky (shown below, whose newest documentary, Gunda, opened here in the USA to almost unanimously positive reviews last week). 

The man we see is one-half of the Russian farm household that includes his widowed sister, herself looking  and sounding initially like part of that hearty, healthy peasant stock that takes life as it is and makes the best of it. 
Wait a minute: Soon enough we are privy to a whole lot more about this pair, as Kossakovsky fills his film with beautiful images of nature, man and animals, and scores it with music that sounds (to TrustMovies ear, at least) utterly Russian -- until it switches to something probably Mexican or Cuban, and later to what may be an old American or British pop song, thus matching the mood of some of his wondrous images: water and trees to massive boulders, a tractor barreling along the road and a tiny hedgehog (who co-stars with the dog in perhaps the film's most delightful and amazing scene).

It's as though the filmmaker knew what conclusion we would jump to, let us do exactly that, and then threw us for a loop. Again and again. He's a filmmaker who brings to fine life that smart old trope: Never assume. Before long we become aware that the brother, among his other features, is a loudmouth drunk, while his sis can often be a whiny complainer, as well as a kindly old soul who loves animals. (How she converses with the animal life around her is exquisite: charming, funny, caring.)

There's a visit from the pair's two brothers, so very different from our drunken farmer. We get a little politics and philosophy, a lot of arguing and pleas for a quieter tone. Old squabbles resurface, along with the inevitability of aging and opportunities passed by. "The train has left the station. We missed it." When sis tells her brother, "I'm grey from life with you!", we fully understand what she means. 

But there's still time for a sauna and a swim and finally a goodbye, in which it seems at least a
few things might be mended. I don't know if it was simply a flaw in the link via which I viewed the film, but at one point toward the end, the sound disappeared. It was as though we had heard enough from this drunken sod. When sorrow and submission come, perhaps it's best they be experienced quietly and alone.

The print of the film, which looks shot in sepia tones, is hardly hi-def, but this, too, works to great advantage. Only 58 minutes long, The Belovs, makes an indelible impression, even as lightness and charm turns to sadness and oppression. Hey, it's Russian. When Kossakovsky finally shows us an old photo of the five siblings (above) in their younger years, the effect is beyond moving.

What seemed to begin as a celebration has evolved into a tale of the human condition, Russia-style. Whatever you think of these Belovs and their movie --  I was so happy to have finally had the chance to see this storied film -- you will certainly agree that it is one-of-a-kind. 

Premiering this Friday, December 18, for only a one-week run, The Belovs opens at New York City's Film Forum virtual cinema. Click here for further information.

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