Savvy viewers of bleak Eastern European festival fare will get a sense early on in “Unclenching the Fists” why “Beanpole” director Kantemir Balagov championed this Russian slice of neorealism. Indeed, Kira Kovalenko’s Cannes Un Certain Regard-winning sophomore feature trades in that same kind of brutal austerity, as if the movie was conceived and shot from inside the bowels of a landfill. (“Unclenching the Fists” was also produced by Alexander Rodnyansky, producer on “Beanpole” and “Leviathan.”) But at the same time, Kovalenko excavates from the rust-dappled rubble of a metaphor for the patriarchy’s dependence on women a suddenly powerful coming-of-ager about a teenage girl breaking free.
That young woman is Ada, living in a withering industrial town in the agriculturally anemic North Ossetia region of Russia with her father and two brothers. From the outset, her relationship with her father, Zaur (Alik Karaev), is established as one of parasitic codependence — he doesn’t like the perfume she’s wearing, or for her hair to be too long, or for her to be too far out of sight. She, meanwhile, abides his curfews and gets into a nervous state whenever she’s too far from home. They live in a hovel where the front door locks from the inside, and rooms are barely separated by thin walls or curtains. Her younger brother Dakko (Khetag Bibilov) similarly clings to her like a barnacle, nuzzling up to her at night in her tiny pallet bed, awakened by frightening dreams. Her older brother Akim (Soslan Khugaev) is the prodigal son who managed to escape to the capital city, but throws things off course with his unexpected return back to old stomping grounds.
Ada’s body, brutalized by harrowing, fleshy wounds, starts to bring into focus a picture of the family’s past. Years ago, the father uprooted the family from the nearby town of Beslan after a school siege, where more than a thousand citizens were held hostage by Chechen terrorists calling for Russia’s withdrawal from Chechnya. Zaur’s tightening hold over the family thereafter starts to look like a not-so-discreet metaphor for Vladimir Putin’s subsequent manipulation of Russian territories to tighten his national grip. But Kovalenko is hardly interested in twisting her characters into the mere player pieces of an allegory.
Moreover, the men claustrophobically encircling Ada and blocking her from realizing a sense of selfhood serve as a shrewd, if somewhat literal example of how power-seeking men siphon off the backs of women to erect their oppressive structures — which in turn depend on women to exist at all.
Newcomer Milana Aguzarova plays Ada with the ticking intensity of a time bomb kept in check, while bringing a sly sense of humor to her prickly self-awareness. Ada is the first to admit she’s “screwed-up, like, twisted,” as she tells the local loser teen Tamik (Arsen Khetagurov) who’s obsessed with her. “I’m out of time.” “When will I be whole again?” These sorts of blithely delivered maxims sting in their palpable pain, but also elicit a laugh, or at least a knowing smile, from the audience and even Ada herself. When she allows Tamik to take her virginity — and for him to see the haphazardly taped-up diaper she wears to conceal the trauma literally pouring out of her from below — she stares glass-eyed at the ceiling with amused resignation. This isn’t the way out from hell.
Director Kira Kovalenko was a former student of “Russian Ark” director Alexander Sokurov, and her exacting vision in this Russian tradition of filmmakers shaking out of rigid formalism shows. She plays her hand too bluntly in a few gestures — including even the title — so literal in their execution of the film’s metaphors of parental clinginess, and the unlocking of its grip, that they almost work. But “Unclenching the Fists” turns out to be hardly the neorealist dip into misery that some of the film’s more disconnected camerawork from DP Pavel Fomintsev promises. (A scene of triadic tension between Ada, Akim, and Zaur gets lost in a long take held from afar.) By the final moments of the movie, set to the blazing chords of a wedding procession flying down the highway, Kovalenko finds hope in a hopeless world.
“Unclenching the Fists” world-premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in May 2021, where it won the Camera d’Or prize in the Un Certain Regard section. It plays the Telluride Film Festival followed by the New York Film Festival before releasing from Mubi.