Friday 24 November 2017

Movies: How I Ended This Summer * * * * *

(Club, IFI)

Spectacular film builds into a gripping thriller
Spectacular film builds into a gripping thriller

Paul Whitington

Nature at its most brutal permeates this stark and spectacular film from Russian writer/director Alexei Popogrebsky, who brilliantly weaves a drama rich in symbolism and insight from what might have been a simple psychological thriller.

On a desolate Arctic island in the northeast of Siberia, a seasoned meteorologist called Sergei (Sergei Puskepalis) has been joined for the summer by a young assistant called Pavel (Grigory Dobrygin) who's fresh out of college.

Their job is to transmit precise climatological data to the mainland via a two-way radio that represents their only contact with the outside world.

While Sergei takes this work very seriously, Pavel -- understandably bored and restless -- adopts a more slapdash approach.

Insulated from the world by his iPod and his shoot-em-up computer games, he wanders the island's stony beaches skimming stones and and is not engaged by the minutiae of meteorology.

In fact, he represents the western-style impatience and fecklessness of the younger generation, while Sergei -- who works hard and does not question his duty -- is a relic of the Soviet era. He's hard on Pavel, and their mutual incomprehension is more or less total -- a dangerous recipe in this desolate place.

When he answers a call from the mainland, Pavel is told that Sergei's wife and child have been fatally injured in a car crash.

On hearing this, Pavel is frozen with indecision. He's frightened of Sergei, who treats him with studied contempt, and when the older man returns from a fishing expedition Pavel holds his tongue in the hope that Sergei will find out the next time he uses the radio.

But the secret survives and festers as the relationship between the two men fatally deteriorates.

After a deliberately sleepy start, How I Ended This Summer builds into a gripping, elemental thriller. The cinematography is wonderful, and Popogrebsky regularly pulls back from the pettiness of his human conflict to drown his characters in the brutal Siberian landscape.

A tragedy built on misunderstanding, Popogrebsky's story is haunted by the lonely sounds of biting winds and scattering radio waves.

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