Review: The Last Relic
- Estonian filmmaker Marianna Kaat's stark and challenging documentary sweeps broadly over Russian society but brings little new to the generally accepted view
One of Estonia's best-established documentary directors and producers, Marianna Kaat, returns with The Last Relic, a film that sweeps broadly over Russian society and results in a conclusion devoid of hope, confirming the generally accepted view of its topic. The documentary has world-premiered at Hot Docs.
It is set in Yekaterinburg, Russia's fourth-largest city, located just east of the Ural Mountains. The opening titles inform us that Tsar Nicholas II and his family, the Romanovs, were executed there in 1918, and that "the bulk of the population dreams of returning to imperial glory".
The Last Relic was shot from 2017 until the invasion of Ukraine, and although there are intertitles that announce separate sub-themes and the years in which events are taking place, it leaves the impression of one large, undifferentiated block. It opens with a ball for army cadets which feels straight out of the 19th century and is edited in parallel with a protest for the release of political prisoners. This approach is employed throughout film: we have a huge mass of people who take part in the government's celebrations and parades, and scattered, divided opposition activists who are being harassed, arrested and imprisoned. Another strong motif is the army and the Orthodox Church as pillars of society, and when we see how many people are employed in the huge state apparatus along with all of the soldiers and police, it does seem that the majority simply cannot be against Putin.
As for the opposition, we first meet 20-year-old student Igor Frolov, an activist from the Left Block, a coalition that aims to gather together all left-leaning options. He is being interviewed in a bar, and as he speaks about corruption, a voice off camera, sounding like a member of staff, warns him to stop. Later, we see him leading his group at a demonstration, as they carry their red flags and banners bearing images of Lenin, and it seems like there can’t be many more than a hundred of them.
An even smaller group consists of middle-aged, "old-school" activists who can hardly agree on the best approach to toppling the regime, but who keep protesting and getting arrested. Most prominent among them are Galina Koroleva, an advocate for protesters' rights; Rafail Shepelev, who is in a hurry to get rid of Putin after leaving prison; and history teacher Viktor Norkin, who gets sentenced in a shamelessly rigged trial for taking part in an unauthorised protest.
Even as the activists get into arguments with Putin supporters, a late scene shows what might be a more pertinent view. A waitress in an ice-cream parlour tells them they are just talking and not actually doing anything, and she wouldn't join them despite being overworked and underpaid. Apathy among the wider population is always more crucial to a regime's survival than proactive support.
Kacper Czubak's deep-focus, widescreen cinematography and Lauri-Dag Tüür's overused score of droning, menacing electric guitars and strings lend the film gravity and intensity. It makes for a stark and repetitive experience, with incessant parades, celebrations, protests and church Masses alternating with activists' discussions and court trials. Bearing in mind that it was cut by experienced editor Jesper Osmund, this must have been the equally seasoned director's choice, but there is little emotional payoff and, more than a year into the full-scale invasion, not a lot of new insight for the patient viewer.
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