In the late-1990s squalid town of Nalchik, a poor young Jewish couple is kidnapped and a grievous ransom is demanded, as bitter resentments and cruel dilemmas come to light, magnifying the small community's grave predicament.
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1998, Nalchik. A Jewish family is in trouble: the youngest son and his bride do not come home, and in the morning, a ransom note arrives. The ransom is so high that the family is forced not only to sell its small business, but also to seek help from its fellow tribesmen.Written by
Tesnota', a film directed by 26-year-old Kantemir Balagov, impresses with its rugged authenticity, its uncompromising standards and its bold aesthetic option, all the more as this is the young filmmaker's first fiction.
Based on a real fact that took place in 1998, in the town of Nalchik in North Caucasus, 'Testnota' tells the sad story of a Jewish family, hitherto barely tolerated - like the rest of their community - by the rest of the population of this Kabardino-Balkar republic of Russia. One unfortunate day, the precarious situation the Kofts are in (Avi Koft is a modest garage owner) is challenged by the abduction of the family's son, David, the very night he got engaged to Lea. A large ransom is demanded, so high that they cannot afford to pay it. And, for some reason, calling the police is out of the question... The rest the story is for you to discover but be assured that it is eventful.
The backbone of the tale is Ila, David's rebellious older sister, played with dark incandescence by a talented newcomer named Darya Jovner. Craving for freedom, Ila does only what she has decided to do, like loving who she has chosen (a Kabard instead of a Jewish boy) or doing the job she is fond of (being a mechanic for her father for free rather than having a paid office work), and although the director's (and accordingly our) sympathy goes to her, the strong-willed girl cannot but make things even more complicated than they already are. This is one of the reasons why, even if this is deliberately not an action flick (the kidnapping remains off camera for instance), tension appears early in the narration and never abates until the final scenes. Simply, the suspense stems from the characters' attitudes and their confrontations rather than from car chases or other stunt set pieces. And at that, Balagov (who has studied cinema with the famous Aleksandar Sokurov) is already a past master. The characters all being in disagreement with each other guarantees a series of powerful scenes, not unlike the best ones in Tennesse Williams or Edward Albee's theater. It goes without saying that to reach such a level, it takes great performers, which is the case here. The already mentioned Darya Jovner is well supported particularly two other noticeable thespians, Olga Dorunova (as the suffering but intolerant mother) and Atrem Tsypin (as her mild husband always trying to round the squares).
Artistically speaking, 'Tsenota' is also some kind of an achievement. The choice of the 1.37 ratio for one is particularly relevant as it enhances the feeling of suffocation experienced by the Koft family members. The work on colors, translating into visual sensations the feelings they are going through at a given time (blood red, electric blue, etc) is equally meaningful and remarkable.
Not that 'Tesnota' is absolutely perfect. A few scenes drag on (the deflowering and the nightclub scenes, for example). Worse, a slaughter video is shown full-time in all its graphic details. It lasts and lasts and serves no other purpose than to show the young Karbads who are watching it remain indifferent to the sufferings of the victims, which we would have understood as easily without such a display of complacency. What is the point of dwelling so much on the matter? WE do not approve of the Chechens' methods, even if WE think their fight is justified . So, why are WE, poor viewers, condemned to endure such horrors for such long minutes ? To be persuaded of what we were convinced in the first place? Quite debatable!
But, apart from such occasional shortcomings, 'Tesnota' undoubtedly is an outstanding work. An interesting description of a little known place, a well chosen starting point that holds its promises, exceptionally well directed actors, an in-depth psychological and sociological study, an artistic achievement, all these points contribute to make the film it a must-see and Kantemir Balagov a director to follow.
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