Venice 2014: 'The Postman's White Nights'

★★★★☆
If Anton Chekhov had been a reality show creator, Andrei Konchalovsky's The Postman's White Nights (2014) might well have been the result. Playing in competition at the 71st Venice Film Festival, this beautifully realised picture tells the story of a small, marginalised village in Northern Russia on the banks of Lake Kenozero. Using for the most part locals instead of actors and capturing their lives with hidden cameras, Konchalovsky's story (co-written with Elena Kiseleva) is a simple tale of the life of one Lyokha (played by real-life postman Aleksei Tryapitsyn) and the community he serves. In a startling opening shot, Lyokha leafs through some old photographs which show him as a hard-drinking man.

The shot is from overhead and the striking image of cats on the plastic table cloth is as vibrant as the faded snaps. Having given up his vodka, Lyokha goes through his days marked by routine. The overhead shot of his flip flops as he pulls himself out of the bed is a repeated motif. He takes his motorboat across the lake to the town where he picks up the post, pensions, bread and odds and bobs for the folk on his round. He also delivers some much needed company, checking up on characters such as 'The Bun' (Victor Kolobov), a staggering drunk with fresh cuts on his face and a spongy gait. Yura (Yury Panfilov) is a hatchet-faced misanthrope who mutters darkly about stabbing people to death. Professional actress Irina Ermolova plays the local fisheries officer for whom Lyokha has taken a shine.

Lyokha dispels some of his loneliness by taking her son Timur (Timur Bondarenko) on a fishing trip, where he scares him with tall of a local witch Kikimora in a scene which is both funny and tender. The simplicity of his life and the long endless summer days are threatened however, first by a recurring dream of a grey cat of obvious symbolism (or it might just be the cat from his table cloth) and subsequently by the theft of his outboard motor. The latter sends him on a trip to the city and also to suspect that one of the villagers has stolen it. Alienated first by the uncaring attitude of his distant bosses and then by his own suspicions, Lyokha has something like a crisis and finds himself sorely tempted by the vodka or perhaps to leave the village altogether. But the postman genuinely belongs to his world, whether gliding across the lake first thing in the morning to the sound of Eduard Artemyev's score or captured by Aleksander Simonov's beautiful cinematography, standing at the edge of field. With The Postman's White Nights, Konchalovsky offers up an intimate and moving pastoral.

The 71st Venice Film Festival takes place from 27 August to 6 September 2014. For more coverage, follow this link.

John Bleasdale

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