Locarno 2021 Review: GERDA, Social Realism Meets Fairy Tale in Russian Drama
Filmmaker Natalya Kudryashova finds spirituality in the harsh reality of modern-day Russia.
The Russian actress-turn-filmmaker Natalya Kudryashova attempts to find transcendence in a harsh and precarious reality in her sophomore feature Gerda.
Lera is a young student of sociology by day and moonlights as a dancer in a strip club under the moniker Gerda to make a living. She is taking care of her ill mother while protecting her from the outbursts from her partner, Gerda´s father, who left them for another woman.
Kudryashova splits reality in the story into a bleak social realism by day and neon-lit fantasy of strip club by night. However, Lera finds her own way in between the two realities.
Kudryashova creates several layers in the story, through which Lera constantly crisscrosses. Scenes in the apartment where she is taking care of her mother resemble a Russian take on the kitchen-sink type of social realism. As a part of her studies, Lera has to do surveys among civilians, which leads her to shabby blocks of flats bumping into other lost existence in her town. While serving her mother during the day, at night, she is serving strangers, providing them escapism and fantasy.
The situation takes a dark turn in her home as the father is becoming more and more violent and his self-pity drunken histrionics are worsening the mother's fragile state. The father ends up in the emergency room with a stab wound, Lera needs to bribe a hospital worker to conceal the incident to skirt the scrutiny of authorities and thus needs to work more at night. Lera is living in a maddening, vicious cycle, with seemingly no viable solution.
Kudryashova does not venture into the apparent poverty porn trajectory as the protagonist's fate might have foreshadowed. Quite the contrary, Lera´s tribulations have an almost biblical dimension which she faces with unexpected stoicism and rationale for such a young girl.
She does not lose her calm, even in a dangerous situation when she is left with a group of horny hunks who are about to have sex with her unconscious colleague. Kudryashova builds the set-up for a displeasing and painful experience but Lera steps in and defuses the explosive situation with a childish folk song.
While Gerda has all the formal aspects of social drama on the outside, Kudryashova operates almost on fairy-tale principles underneath. Furthermore, the cross-over between drama and fable opens a new dimension outside the reach of corporeal reality.
Lera is having strange visions of pagan-like nature imagery. The name of Lera's dancing alter-ego Gerda refers to Hans Christian Andersen's fairy tale Snow Queen and the character with the same name. While Gerda is not a post-Soviet retelling of Andersen's classics, the two characters share some similarities.
Lera's visions suggest that she is an incarnation of a spiritual entity in a godless and hopeless place. The implication explains Lera's role as a sort of protector and her strange calmness when a situation is about to turn for the worse.
Kudryashova's Gerda is the latest oeuvre that conjures up spiritual or transcendental experience in a desperate place and life akin to Ralitza Petrova's Godless. Unlike Petrova, Kudryashova acknowledges the metaphysical plane (in one scene even quite explicitly showing angel wings behind a little Lera on a family photo).
While Gerda serves as a testament to feminine relentlessness in the face of grim circumstances, Kudryashova manages to pull off the unlikely merger of social realism and fable as crude and vile actions are met with innocence. The director dodges sentimentality and melodrama thanks to the bleak coating social realist drama offers.
Gerda belong among one of several films in this year's Locarno lineup that demonstrates the fluidity of cinema when seemingly antagonistic or oxymoronic genre or formal elements are seamlessly blended, exploring new perspectives.
- Natalya Kudryashova
- Natalya Kudryashova
- Anastasiya Krasovskaya
- Yuriy Borisov
- Darius Gumauskas