Wednesday, February 9, 2011

No Vacation

Grigory Dobrygin, left, & Sergei Puskepalis in HOW I ENDED THE SUMMER (Photo: Film Movement)
How I Ended This Summer

Written and directed by Alexei Popogrebsky
With Grigory Dobrygin & Sergei Puskepalis
Opened February 4, 2011

The best science-fiction films like Kubrick’s 2001 and Tarkovsky’s Solaris explore isolation and alienation amid the vastness of outer space. Similarly, Alexei Popogrebsky's How I Ended This Summer could well be taking place on another planet, so remote is the Siberian region that’s the setting for its solitary protagonists.

At an inaccessible Arctic polar station miles away from the nearest civilized outpost, two men are working: Sergei, a veteran meteorologist in his 50s, has been joined by a new assistant, college grad Pavel. The men's days comprise calling in their readings to headquarters: aside from them, radio voices filled with static are the film’s lone links to civilization. Writer-director Popogrebsky, who has a degree in psychology, trenchantly explores how fragile the human psyche becomes, especially when confronted with unspeakable tragedy while alone.

While Sergei is off on a fishing trip that was not authorized, Pavel gets a message from HQ that Sergei's wife and son have been in a serious accident. Unable to bring himself to relay that information, Pavel instead hopes that the rescue ship scheduled to pick them up will arrive soon and relieve him of that burden.

Soon, however, the men find themselves in a cat-and-mouse game exacerbated by Pavel’s increasing paranoia, especially after he finally blurts out the fateful news to Sergei. Their strangely riveting battle royal plays out against the beautiful but dangerous surroundings that show the puniness of man when confronted by the mercilessness of nature.

Popogrebsky shoots the intimidatingly awesome vistas in a series of magnificent extreme long shots by director of photography Pavel Kostomarov, who manages to catch the unique sunlight during this Arctic region’s endless summer days in all its alternating bright and grayish gradients. The landscape becomes the men’s antagonist, and if there are too many of these imposing views during the film’s 130-minute running time, the director compensates with a truly breathtaking final shot, which slowly but emphatically morphs from darkness to a light that eventually whitens the entire screen, figuratively swallowing up these men.

Grigory Dobrygin (Pavel) and Sergei Puskepalis (Sergei) inhabit their roles persuasively and completely, showing how these men develop a tenuous bond that’s borne out of a sheer survival instinct, despite the obvious differences in their personalities and ages.

That this skeleton crew and cast actually lived together for months while filming would definitely make for an intriguing making-of documentary on the upcoming DVD release, but the finished film, a chilling and explosive psychological study, is more than enough.

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