A peculiar thing happened to us earlier on, and it goes by the name of “The Postman’s White Nights.” Andrei Konchalovsky’s Venice favorite (it was tipped for a big prize and duly picked up Best Director) is a film whose effect is hard to communicate, as the amount of time we’ve spent staring at a blinking cursor can attest. How do you even go about describing a non-verbal, non-intellectual reaction, one that happened almost against your will and without your knowing it was coming? And certainly, how do you do that without grotesquely overselling the experience of a film that in any one moment can feel banal, unformed, simple to the point of simplistic? “The Postman’s White Nights” is being widely celebrated as a quasi-documentary, marked by a droll sense of humor that illuminates life in a forgotten corner of the world. And it is that, no doubt, but for us it went much further than mere anthropological interest. If it presents an accurate picture of this reality, then it feels like it’s a reality that is unstable, so far cut off from the mainstream of life that it has begun to fray into the surreal and the magic at the edges.
So let’s start with the easy stuff, the locations, the cast, the technique, such things. Konchalovsky, a director who, in addition to writing with Tarkovsky pursued a Hollywood career in the 1980s (“Runaway Train” and “Tango and Cash” are probably his best known films from that period), has been no stranger to success on the festival circuit. He has developed a technique of “scripted documentary” whereby he finds non-professional actors and allows a script to develop out of interactions with them, often allowing them to improvise and ad lib their scenes. And this is how he approached ‘White Nights,’ first finding his (perfect) leading man, the astonishingly blue-eyed Aleksei Tryapitsin, and then embedding himself with him, and recruiting other people from his village to play, essentially, versions of themselves.
The village is one of Russia’s thousands of tiny, isolated rural communities, a scattering of houses in the Archangelsk region, cut off from the world of shopping malls and wifi by the immense lake Kenozero. In this world, which feels so ancient as to be almost primeval, the postman occupies a supremely important role. The only contact with the outside world, he brings not just post but groceries, companionship, gossip and contact to the men and women who dot the shores around the lake’s great expanse. It is the postman who is the region’s sluggishly circulating lifeblood; without him, it might simply wither like a dead limb, or float off into space with no one back on Earth the wiser.
In any other hands, this is a simple work of social realism, a noble attempt to bring to light fascinating, arcane lifestyles of material simplicity or grinding poverty, depending on how you care to look at them, that we otherwise could have no inkling even exist. And ‘White Nights’ is that film. But it is also something else, something un-real and elusive that chimes for the first time early on when, having watched the postman Lyokha get up, watch TV, make tea and gaze forlornly at his cheap plastic flip-flops, suddenly we’re out on the water with him. In an immense, gliding, breathtaking shot scored to unearthly perfection by a single ambient drone from composer Eduard Artemyev, the film takes a leap onto a whole other plane.
In the main, however, and to an occasionally almost enervating extent, the film trundles through its tiny, mundane episodes and encounters. Lyokha makes an abortive pass at a woman living nearby; he chats with the local alcoholic nicknamed The Bun; he intervenes in disputes over poaching; he plays the accordion at an impromptu party; and in the nearest thing the film has to a conventionally dramatic plot point, he wakes one day to find someone has stolen the motor from his boat, which is his livelihood (shades of “Bicycle Thieves”). But interspersed throughout this cavalcade of mundanity, which is sometimes even presented from the fly-on-the-wall perspective of mounted cameras left running in the villagers’ houses, tiny tears and wrinkles appear in the fabric of the narrative’s “reality.”
Lyokha imagines a grey cat; he dreams of the now-abandoned schoolhouse ringing with noise and chatter; he takes his neighbor’s son out fishing and terrifies the boy with stories of a local witch; he goes to town to get a replacement motor and ends up trying to talk to “the general” on a military base while a massive rocket hums in a warehouse before being brought out to the launchpad. That rocket will figure in again later as the most delightfully surreal, but also strangely ominous of the film’s images, as it blasts into the sky unnoticed by the postman, who chats to a friend in the foreground.
The eerie effect of these moments is so ephemeral, so subtle that we could think it was simply a trick of our own minds, and yet at the end, a title appears on screen. It’s a line from Shakespeare’s “The Tempest”—“Where should this music be? i’ the air or the earth? It sounds no more.” You can read it as a lament for the passing way of life that Konchalovsky has documented here, or you can find in it more evidence that his intention was grander even than that: to create a sense of this place as an almost mythical nowhere, neither in the air nor the earth. One of the subtly recurring motifs in the film is orphanhood, and when we left our screening that is what we felt like we had witnessed—the sometimes witty, sometimes tragic, sometimes monotonous, often uncanny story of an orphaned community at the end of the world where the sun never sets. [A]