Simple Things
[Prostye veshchi]

 

Russia, 2007
Color, 106 minutes
Russian with English subtitles
Director: Aleksei Popogrebskii
Screenplay: Aleksei Popogrebskii
Cinematography: Pavel Kostomarov
Art Direction: Ol'ga Osipova
Music: Dmitrii Katkhano
Cast: Sergei Puskepalis, Leonid Bronevoi, Svetlana Kamynina, Dinara Kutueva, Ivan Osipov, Malkhaz Zhvaniia, Ivan Shvedov, Luiza Markova, Liubov' Makeeva
Producers: Roman Borisevich, Nataliia Borisevich, Mikhail Kolodiazhnyi
Production: Kinokompaniia Koktebel'???
Awards: Grand Prix, Best Director, Best Actor (Sergei Puskepalis), and Priceless Contribution to Russian Film (Leonid Bronevoi) at Kinotavr (2007); Best Actor (Sergei Puskepalis) at Karlovy Vary Film Festival (2007); International Film Critics Award (FIPRESCI, 2007).

"I've lived my whole life so as to not need anyone," the once famous actor Vladimir Zhuravlev tells his anesthesiologist Sergei Maslov, "and now no one needs me." Zhuravlev's confession resonates with Maslov's own life, which is becoming more isolated: he rejects his wife Katia's decision to have another child, he becomes increasingly dissatisfied with his job at a St. Petersburg hospital, and he is despondent over his daughter Lena's decision to leave home and move in with her boyfriend Petr. The gravely ill actor's eventual proposition—the exchange of an unsigned painting by Repin for assisted suicide with Maslov's help—would perhaps seem like a golden opportunity for the dissatisfied doctor. Such matters of life and death, however, are not so simple.

Simple Things is filled with simple scenes: a search for crossword puzzle clues, a young man relieving himself in a park at night, an unexpected stream of water from a street-washing truck, a hunchback babushka straining to reach matches she dropped on the floor. Yet such simple scenes do not imply simplicity; there are surprising and nuanced elements in Popogrebskii's sparse directing style. One moment will shift unexpectedly to another, as with a soup jar in the opening of the film that suddenly appears wrapped in plastic in the next shot. In addition, the visual and sound content in the film often do not coincide—the discussion over the crossword puzzle occurs as we see Maslov standing apart from his fellow doctors, staring at a microwave that is off-screen. Sergei's fight with his daughter's new friends is never shown close-up, but rather the camera remains across the street, with passing trucks and cars blocking the viewer's field of vision. Moments in the film frequently serve as doubles of one another: the reflection of Maslov's watch in the nosy courtyard keeper's face echoes the moment when he later comes to the apartment with a large mirror and an even more glaring reflection in the face of the dvornik; the reproduction of the Michelangelo print in Maslov's new boss' office, which he jokes is "an original," later reappears in the shop window of the Print-on-Canvas store.

In addition to Popogrebskii's signature directing style, the masterful performances by Sergei Puskepalis as Sergei Maslov and Leonid Bronevoi as Vladimir Zhuravlev dominate the film. The charismatic Maslov, with his string of bad luck and seemingly good intentions, implies the plight of everyman. While he may save people's lives every day—as his Georgian neighbor asserts in a toast of well wishes—he seems like one of the crowd when he is given the perfunctory gift of a box of chocolates by his patients. Along with the rest of the rabble, he is a frequent customer at the bar Lower Depths, tellingly named after Maksim Gor'kii's play. The choice seems like an appropriate one; in Gor'kii's Lower Depths, a motley crew of characters bemoans a life that no longer exists, while still believing in the integrity and value of humankind. Life and death, as well as the survival of everyday existence, figure prominently in both film and play. After Maslov's first visit to the bar, his fellow patrons treat him to a shot for the road. The glass is passed through the nearly underground window, emphasizing the subterranean placement of the bar. Underscoring this sublevel motif, Maslov's visits to Lower Depths are accompanied or followed by episodes of misfortune: a drunk driving violation and loss of license, a fight in the street with his daughter's new friends, massive alcohol consumption, and being hit by a car.

In contrast to Maslov, Vladimir Zhuravlev represents all that is refined and proper. He insists that Maslov speak to him "normally," with an appropriate introduction and level of voice. He derides the anesthesiologist for not having an academic degree and for coming from the provincial town of Rostov-on-the-Don. The actor is literate and knowledgeable, referencing Chekhov and reciting Tiutchev by heart. While Zhuravlev can be stubborn and difficult, he is also sensitive and perceptive. He ardently hopes Maslov will go to see one of his films playing at the House of Cinema, he feels guilty for mocking his caretaker Rita and her Rostov-style fish soup, and he clearly wants to help Sergei and his family. Rita insists that the aging actor is not difficult, but rather simple, and that one must treat him "as a child."

Despite its serious subject matter, Simple Things is not without moments of humor and levity. The absurd image of Maslov sitting in his daughter's kitchen wearing a much too tight CIA t-shirt and milk moustache is hard to forget. The pregnant mother and daughter, walking side by side at the end of the film, are jokingly called "penguins." A light-hearted piano melody repeats throughout the film, and the film itself ends on an upbeat note. All in all, Simple Things achieves the not-so-simple task of combining the serious with the comical, the refined with the common, and the everyday with the extraordinary in a convincing and aesthetically pleasing manner.

Julie Draskoczy

Aleksei Popogrebskii

Aleksei Popogrebskii was born in Moscow in 1972 (his father was the screenwriter Petr Popogrebskii). He holds a degree in psychology from Moscow State University. Together with the fellow student at the State Institute for Filmmaking, Boris Khlebnikov, he shot the 1997 short non-fiction film Mimokhod. Again pairing with Khlebnikov, he directed his first feature film in 2003, the critically-acclaimed Koktebel'. Simple Things is the director's first solo feature-length film.

Filmography

1997 In Passing (documentary short; co- directed with Boris Khlebnikov)
2003 Koktebel' (co-directed with Boris Khlebnikov)
2007 Simple Things

 
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