Sunday, April 28, 2013

MESTO NA ZEMLE (Artour Aristakisian, 2001)

Maria, wide-eyed woman wrapped in the regalia of rags, 
what provenance do you come from, bagwoman
who lugs around the refuse of Moscow, limping,
inch by painful inch, on feet festering from gangrene,
about to give out, about to give up on this world?
Take heart, Maria, you whose dignity is laid so low
that you must roam with the cats, lie prone on doorsteps
seeking alms or merely directions to a refuge you long for –
but how they shoo you away like dirty pigeons,
how your words weigh like droppings smearing their monuments.

Take heart, Maria, when they deem you touched,
half-mad, half-beatific because you can almost taste
this utopia on earth, a rumored eden for the sick and homeless,
a place promisingly called the Temple of Love –
are you perhaps otherworldly, mongering the trinkets of religion?

When finally, at the end of your tether, you come to this condemned
building teeming with men, women and children, they take you
in without question – these unlikely occupants of this promised land:
cripples, drug addicts, hippies, the down-and-out dregs of skid row.

Nothing’s plenty here in this poorman’s paradise: food is
meager, each one on spoonful rations; space isn’t fit for sardines,
narrow as coffin. There are no floorboards to speak of.
The walls are signatured by wrecking balls, emblazoned with
the bloom of graffiti.

This temple reeks.

Except for Love. This place preens itself on a curious brand.
Sex is a big part of it. Love is instilled this way: asleep or in
need, you are bodily carried from off the streets. You, newcomer,
are fed, bathed, and suckled by women’s breasts like a hungry
infant. In turn you must do the same, pay forward.

Maria, how quietly you take it all in, but how suddenly it seems
you are converted to this hybrid of religion and hedonism –
how you pledge yourself like a biblical Mary or Magdalene
to the man who dressed your wounds, the hippie Messiah
presiding here. Perhaps this is all born of desperation, this
kinship kindled by having no one and nothing at all. What else
do you call it when, day after day, the police rouse you all from
sleep to ferret out the drug addicts and criminals? Where is peace?

Soon enough, this experiment starts to unravel. Desperation
does not become your Jesus: he cuts his member to dissuade
dissenters from leaving. But we see how some faithful remain
– the newcomers at least, while the old hands grow
aloof – and worship at this altar to hippiedom: how you,
Maria, for one, spreads kisses to all the cripples and needy
you meet. But how to sustain? All seems empty goodwill.

Above this crumbling dream, this dilapidated fantasy, we see
the majestic vision of Kremlin, its towering spires piercing the
sky. Had you glanced up, Maria, you’d have murmured
about its remote beauty, how near it is to heaven, and yet how
unreachably so, how forbidding.

Photographed in black and white, this is a documentary disguised as a poetic, fictional movie. It’s a living nightmare, and it’s hard not to flinch from watching sometimes. The faces of impoverishment – the cripples and the woman who essays Maria in particular – appear to be authentic people culled from the streets, lending this film the earmarks of neo-realism. Audiences might read an anti-authoritarian message into this urban dystopia, but that is a given, we are already in an era of skepticism, witnessing evangelists fall from grace. We can zero in on the failure of systems and forms of government, their suspect infallibility, instead. This is perhaps all about the sorry plight and fiasco of the fledgling post-Soviet democracy, where many are neglected and must organize and fend for themselves. Amid the scatter of lost souls, the contrasting grandeur of the Kremlin skyline at movie’s end bears noting.

Title in English: A Place in The World (aka A Place on Earth)
Reviewed: November 11, 2006

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