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VENICE 2020 Giornate degli Autori

Review: Conference

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- VENICE 2020: The new film from Russian writer-director Ivan I Tverdovskiy is original and unsettling, perhaps his most complex and controversial to date

Review: Conference

Russian writer-director Ivan I Tverdovskiy has outdone himself with his new film, Conference [+see also:
trailer
interview: Ivan I Tverdovsky
film profile
]
, which had its world premiere in the Giornate degli Autori section at the Venice Film Festival. After making his name with original, intense films about special individuals trying to fit into society, such as Corrections Class [+see also:
film review
trailer
interview: Ivan I Tverdovsky
film profile
]
, Zoology [+see also:
film review
trailer
interview: Ivan I Tverdovsky
film profile
]
and Jumpman [+see also:
film review
trailer
interview: Ivan I Tverdovsky
film profile
]
, all of which screened at Karlovy Vary, the director's new outing is by far his most complex and controversial to date. It will leave many viewers questioning Tverdovskiy's point and the ethics of the film's extraordinary, tortured protagonist, but it is also sure to rattle them emotionally.

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The hero in question is Natasha (Natalya Pavlenko, increasingly impressive with each new role), a nun who arrives in Moscow on the day of the 17th anniversary of the Dubrovka Theatre attack, which left at least 170 hostages and a never officially confirmed number of Chechen terrorists dead, to organise a memorial evening. Armed with money and the blessing of her priest, seemingly blindly supported by her sister Vera (Natalya Potapova), she rents the place for the night before going to visit her daughter Galya (Kseniya Zueva). 

For an unspecified reason which the viewer will only slowly uncover, Galya is angry at her mother, and won't let her get near their paralysed father/husband. As we learn that Natasha is unaware of what happened to him, we realise that she has been out of touch for a long time.

The night in the theatre takes up almost two thirds of the film's 129-minute running time. Natasha has invited survivors and their families, and a few dozen people gather in the 800-seat hall. Wearing her black habit which only leaves her pale face visible, she stands in front of the auditorium and barely manages to produce a couple of words at the beginning, explaining that they have brought inflatable mannequins that should stand in for victims, terrorists, and those who couldn't make it that night.

But as attendees, scattered around the seats of the large hall, start puffing into the white, black and blue dolls, Natalya slowly becomes a commanding presence. A spiritual guide, a listener, a therapist, a guru, she leads the survivors into a retelling and a reliving of the tragedy. Tverdovskiy develops the proceedings in the screenplay in such a way, with the (anti-) hero's confidence rising just as her self-awareness seems to falter, that by the end of the night, the attendees have returned to their role of hostages in ways more than metaphorical.

Tverdovskiy stays away from political controversies surrounding the tragedy (the Russian Federal Security Service and the military intelligence agency GRU clearly had a decisive hand in the whole mess). Instead, it is the complexity of the main character that drives the viewer's curiosity. Why does her daughter hate her so much? Why has she been missing for so long? What does she want to achieve? The answers partially lie in the overarching theme of fear, which the film tackles in various and often unexpected ways: from Natalya's interactions with her family (a short scene with grandson Egor is particularly jarring) to Galya's hysterical reactions, to a beautiful, painting-like church scene in which a priest delivers a biblical, judgemental view of this emotion as "the strongest sin", and finally to the memorial night with attendees reliving the scariest moments of their lives.

Along with the film’s plot, the intensity of its topic and ots surprising protagonist, it is the work of DoP Fedor Glazachev that makes Conference so impressive, through his vigorously varied techniques, which include disorienting close-ups, monumental wide shots inside the theatre, skewed POV angles and often surprising lighting related to the theme's religious dimension. The sound design by Rustam Medov and Horret Kuus provides more than a mere background, mirroring the fear and heightened senses of a flight-or-fight situation.

Conference is a co-production between Estonia's Nafta Films, Russia's Vega Film and Ark Pictures, Italy's Revolver and the UK's REASON8 Films, which also handles the international rights.

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