“Closeness” is a drama set in the Kabardino-Balkaria Republic of the Russian North Caucasus. It is depicted as a place of limited options, an uneasy “tribal” ethnic mix of populations and a grim, grey beauty that mirrors the hard people living through hard times there.
Writer-director Kantemir Balagov identifies himself as Kabardian (Muslim) in an opening voice-over, and tells us this story happened in the city of Nalchik, dumpy model of Soviet planning and architecture just north of the Georgian border. The story he tells happens to poor working class Jews living there in 1998.
Ilana, “Ila” (Darya Zhovner) is 24, and works on cars in her dad’s garage. She seems to treasure the connection, but Avi (Atrem Cipin) is OK with it, even if he’s always bringing up folks he knows suggesting other jobs for her.
“Do you want to spend all your life fixing cars?” he grumps (in Russian, with English subtitles).
Her mother (Olga Dragunova) puts up with it, because their lean finances demand it. Besides, their son David (Veniamin Kac) is getting married. He’s younger, doesn’t seem to have a job himself. But he’s their darling, something made clear by the big engagement dinner they throw him.
There’s a guy her parents have in mind for Ilana, but Rafa is a bit of a shrimp. We figure out he’s not “man enough” for her when we see who she steps out with. Zalim (Nazir Zhukov) is a bear-sized truck driver and Kabardian. He’s rough company and she’s down with that.
But returning home after the party, she realizes tragedy has struck. David and his fiance have been kidnapped. “Don’t tell the police,” they’re warned. And the ransom? It’s well beyond their reach.
The family and community’s “Closeness” are tested, as the rabbi rounds everybody up for a meeting to pool resources. Some bristle at pitching in, others are most interested in helping fiance Lea’s widowed mom recover her daughter.
Ilana’s family will lose everything they have getting David back, and even though we’ve seen how close the siblings are, she fumes at this final confirmation that she has less value. They’re even willing to marry her off for the cash to get David back. She’s not going to accept this, Zalim is more her speed.
“He’s not from our tribe.”
“I don’t BELONG to that tribe,” she hisses.
But going to stay with Zalim is more harrowing than she could know. The Chechen wars— Russians attacking Islamic separatists — weren’t some remote “overseas news” in 1998 Nalchik. And sitting with Zalim’s radicalized pals, hearing them bring up ancient grievances (“Remember 1763!”) and watching snuff videos of Chechens torturing and executing Russian prisoners (the real deal) is too horrific even for Zalim to watch.
A friend’s crack that “Jews are good to make soap from” should close the deal for Ila. That it doesn’t speaks volumes about how much she resents the family that’s using her to raise cash for her brother.
Balagov shoves our faces into the this, tight shots in a 4-3 aspect ratio creating a claustrophobia that isn’t lessened by the natural lighting outdoors and dimly lit interiors.
It’s a very rough and rough-hewn film. He shoves our faces into the ethnic turmoil. But the violence, gratuitous as it seems, serves a purpose. Ila’s connection to this other “tribe” is a non-starter.
“Jews are good to make soap from,” one Muslim cracks.
And if the prisoner-murdering footage (far more than necessary to make the point) wasn’t bad enough, we’re treated to a rape as well. Be warned, there are “triggers” woven into this picture that make it not for everyone.
Balagov has already shown us an ugly vision of Jewish “types” from the region, self-interested, stingy. One elder who offers to “help” just wants to get Avi’s garage at fire-sale (desperation) prices.
“Don’t PREY on us!” Ila shouts, to no avail.
Ila is the heart and soul of “Closeness,” and Zhovner breathes an impulsive fury into her. She’s more at home in overalls than a dress, and her whispered dismissal of a marriage proposal — “It’s not going to happen” — is but a prelude to the film’s third shock, the way she ends that talk, in the middle of a marriage negotiation dinner, will be the one scene from “Closeness” that don’t think I’ll ever forget.
MPAA Rating: unrated, graphic violence depicted in actual terrorist footage, rape, profanity, drinking and smoking
Cast: Darya Zhovner, Atrem Cipin, Olga Dragunova, Nazir Zhukov and Veniamin Kac
Credits: Directed by Kantemir Balagov, script by Kantemir Balagov, Anton Yarush. A Kino Lorber release.
Running time: 1:58