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Sententia (Sentensia)

A slow and studied Russian arthouse drama charting the last days of Soviet poet Varlam Shalamov — live from Tallinn.


[dropcapT[/dropcap]error and tedium coexist in Sententia, charting the last moments of the censored Russian writer Varlam Shalamov. A slow and studied film in the manner of classic arthouse Soviet film, it is a poetic and forbidding work that rewards close attention and strong willpower.

Censored in his time — and forced to spend 17 years in the gulag for his support of Leon Trotsky and praise of emigre Ivan Bunin — Shalamov (Aleksandr Ryazantsev) is at the end of his days in Sententia, visited upon by two young men who want to preserve his work and smuggle it out of the country. Barely able to move, they help him to compose the last words to his final poem, shot in an endless long take that is likely to test the patience of audiences.

Shot in black-and-white 16mm, with plenty of crackle in the frame and abrasive hissing sounds, the film feels like a lost Soviet classic by someone such as Larisa Shepitko or Alexei German. Its lost-seeming nature suits the work of Shalamov, which was preserved through samizdat, otherwise known as the Russian literary underground.

Yet, like the poet himself, who came up with the strange word as a mantra for his character to stay awake in the forest, audiences must try and fight against the slowness of the film in order to stay invested. Words and sounds are just as important as the images, with the pronounced sound design using far-off sounds, such as reverb-heavy banging evoking prison cells, without drawing too much attention to itself. It reminds us that the authorities, who surveilled Shalamov until the end of his life, were never too far away…

Lovers of classical Russian cinema will find a lot to love here. It’s no surprise that Dmitry Rudakov trained at the Russian State University of Cinematography — home to everyone from Andrei Tarkovsky to Yuri Bykov — which often produces an instantly recognisable “Russian” style. Yet, Dmitry Rudakov’s style comes through strongest when he escapes from these parameters and uses other more interesting techniques. For example, a montage of still images blends together family heritage and surveillance photos — reminding us that that even the most personal moments during the Soviet Union were never far from governmental control.

Rudakov, born after the collapse of the Soviet Union, goes deep into its history, trying to dig at the very paradox of producing poetry in an authoritarian system. In one particularly ambitious moment, Shostakovich’s Jazz Waltz is played at a slowed-down tempo, stretching out an instantly recognisable tune and making it feel strange. This sense of slowness pervades almost every scene, of which there are very few across the film’s 100 minute runtime.

Diversions into romantic territory and spliced-in-documentary footage betray an ambition beyond the initial subject matter, creating an interesting tension between miserablism and tenderness. Can beauty and love exist in such a cruel, often monotonous and depressing place? Sententia doesn’t provide us with any answers, taking a (very) long hard look at Soviet repression and creating a dark and distressing piece of cinema in the process.

Sententia plays as part of the First Feature competition at Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival, running from 13th to 29th November

By Redmond Bacon - 18-11-2020

Redmond’s tastes are pretty diverse – from the neglected cop classic Tango and Cash (Andrei Konchalovsky,1989) the lesbian drama Show Me Love (Lukas Moodysson, 1998) to Scorsese’s best film:...

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