CANNES 2023 Directors’ Fortnight
- CANNES 2023: Ilya Povolotsky’s film is a soporific coming-of-age drama, and an escapist piece whose presence on the Croisette is out of place and comes at totally the wrong time
It is no easy task to write a review of Ilya Povolotsky’s Grace, a Russian production world-premiered in the Directors’ Fortnight at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. To simplify it, this piece will be split into two parts: one tackling the film as a cinematic object, and the other examining its positioning within the festival and the meaning of its presence on the Croisette. This writer believes the latter aspect must be tackled because the events unfolding at our doors are not taking place on some mysterious, far-away planet, but rather, they are recent, painful and have huge consequences on millions of people’s lives.
The story of Grace, penned by the director himself, follows two rather silent characters – a father (Gela Chitava) and his teenage daughter (Maria Lukyanova). They live in a cramped, rusty van that contains all of their belongings, including the equipment to set up a travelling cinema. They get by stopping off in small villages, and selling food and drink during the screenings (as well as pirated copies of the films!).
We won’t find out much else about the two leads, as they are largely underwritten, and the few events unfold at a very slow pace. The picture is dominated by long takes and some exhaustingly slow moments, with the great majority of these not adding anything to the narrative – in one shot, for example, the father struggles to extract a pack of cigarettes, and this action takes almost one minute.
Furthermore, the characters’ reactions and interactions tend to be quite unnatural, as they act overly irrationally, are lacking in motives and do not develop their relationships with others. This is the case, for example, of a young boy whom the two encounter along the way. The teen has a rather brief encounter with the girl while bored with the screening and decides, the day after, to chase them, begging the father to bring him along with them. A few other characters are banally surreal and romanticised – a drunk man selling novels for 50 roubles in the middle of nowhere, for instance.
There is also a problem in determining the style of this film. It starts off as a road movie, then it turns into a clunky coming-of-age picture (with young teens dealing with their sex drive, again), it takes a “darker” turn later on (already hinted at when Zurkas Tepla’s disturbing score occasional chimes in), and it is brought to a close more like a classical psychological drama. The fact that the van is a travelling cinema is of little importance, despite its great playful potential. It’s just their source of income – they could have sold literally anything else – and this particular choice is not exploited to add any further layers of meaning or to say something about the medium itself.
It’s true that the film was shot in 2021, before the Russian-Ukrainian conflict escalated. But the presence of this title at the festival makes little sense today. All in all, Grace is an escapist feature that is out of place and showing at the wrong time, telling a story that is not even aesthetically or narratively outstanding enough to justify its selection. It doesn’t even make use of subtle metaphors, nor does it indulge in a loose satire on power and authority, unlike other, older films produced in the country – just to cite one title, Captain Volkogonov Escaped [+see also:
film profile] was released in 2021, and despite the visible limits of censorship, it had much more to say about today’s Russia than Povolotsky’s debut does. This is especially relevant because the film has been presented as an example of Russian independent cinema, and Thierry Frémaux, while being interviewed by Paris Match just a few days ago, said the Cannes Film Festival had “always been political”.
Grace was produced by Russia’s Blackchamber.
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