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BLACK NIGHTS 2022 Competition

Review: Sashenka


- Olexandr Zhovna’s sophomore feature shows enough to unsettle, but things get too convoluted and confusing along the way

Review: Sashenka

Olexandr Zhovna’s sophomore feature, Sashenka [+see also:
film profile
, is without doubt one of the titles with the most disquieting premises out of all the movies screened at this year’s Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival. Showcased in the main competition of the Estonian gathering, the picture opens with a double murder. An elderly couple (played by Viktor Rybchinskiy and Oksana Burlay-Piterova) sleeping on the second floor of a house have been killed, and their wheelchair-bound adult son, Sasha (Dmitry Nizhelsky), has been left alone. The police open an investigation to find out the identity of the murderer, and viewers are progressively thrust into very long flashbacks disclosing the horrific past of this family. The couple were expecting a girl instead of a boy, thus they force Sasha to be raised as a girl, turning his life into a nightmare in which he only seems to be able to find some comfort with his friends, Lena (Milena Kompaniiets) and Kolya (Dmitry Orlov).

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The setup is certainly promising and involving, and despite the lack of great production resources, there’s enough here to make us feel immersed in the weird atmosphere of this undefined place in the Soviet countryside in the years of Leonid Brezhnev’s rule. Zhovna also manages to generate enough mystery around the reasons why the two parents behave so outlandishly and makes the search for the killer, for the most part, an intriguing experience. However, as the truth becomes easier and easier to guess, the plot becomes more and more convoluted, ultimately affecting the end result – and this, in particular, concerns how Sasha’s bond with Lena and Kolya develops after his parents’ death.

Overall, the whole cast does a fair job in their roles, even though Nizhelsky occasionally goes fairly over the top, especially when it comes to “screaming” his existential discomfort. Such a sharp reaction may even be considered plausible owing to the troubles his character goes through, but it feels somehow artificial owing to its repetitiveness and its frequency.

The choice of shooting the film in black and white feels right, as it creates enough of a distance from the characters and helps viewers digest the most intense, horrific scenes.

One could easily say that Sashenka is a wide-ranging, disturbing exploration of deviance, violence and craziness. It certainly may leave viewers with a sense of emptiness, disgust and misery. We may start to speculate why Zhovna felt the need to tell this story today: the decision to tackle the pressing themes of gender roles during one’s upbringing and how oppression – in any circumstances – paves the way to many kinds of tragedy may indeed be a wise one.

The picture itself doesn’t seem to provide a clear answer, but we can at least assume that the helmer’s own work as a correctional teacher for children had an influence on his script and helped him develop an interest in exploring the darkest sides of the human soul.

Sashenka was produced by Ukrainian outfit Cinemastudio. Tel Aviv-based firm Antipode is in charge of its international sales.

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