The Gulls (Ella Manzheeva, 2015): Russia

Reviewed by Larry Gleeson. Viewed during the AFI Filmfest 2015.

“The Gulls,” written and directed by Ella Manzheeva, depicts a harsh and difficult climate for Elza, played by model Evgeniya Mandzhieva, in her first big-screen appearance and Dzhiga, played by Sergei Andianov. Elsa teaches piano to small children in the town center while Dzhiga is a burly fisherman and small-time criminal. “The Gulls,” is a visual feast of the small town of Kalmykia, a remote Russian republic bordering the Caspian Sea. Stunning aerial shots of its waterways and icy ocean fronts set the tone for this chilling tale of life in Kalmykia.

Kalmykia is primarily a fishing community. The culture is Buddhist. The area has cell-phone coverage. And the locals line up to see the town’s fortune-teller to find out what is waiting for them. Elsa comes to see the fortune teller with the rest of the women only to be turned away as the fortune teller refuses to see her. The only people Elsa is able to engage are the wife of the local crime-boss and her husband Dzhiga’s younger brother. Together they exude chemistry.

Dzhiga, on the other hand, doesn’t seem to know any strangers. He has his fishing buddies over to discuss a illegal fishing excursion so he can add to a marriage dowry. Dzhiga’s mother is not happy with Dzhiga as Elsa has not provided any children. During a family gathering an elder sings the traditional songs of the Kalmyk. It’s a haunting rendition adding credence and complimenting the local folklore that the gulls represent the souls of the community’s departed fisherman.

Throughout “The Gulls,” the cinematography catches unique aspects of the Kalmyira culture. In addition, to the aerial shots and the misty, gray outdoor shots, Director of Photography, Alexander Kuznetsov, has plenty of colors and designs for his indoor shots . Art Director, Denis Bauer, provides a plethora of pastels and bright primary colors to create a vivid backdrop with a decidedly Buddhist accent. Anton Silaev composes a unique soundtrack using natural sounds adding another layer to the film’s depth.

For her first time out Mandzhieva holds her own. She exudes a fragility presumably from the harshness of the environment. When Kuznetsov gets her indoors, her natural beauty and grace illuminate the frames. It’s easy to imagine her on the walkway for a fashion shoot. One particular shot of Elsa’s beautiful, long, sleek, black hair captures the imagination as she sleeps. As if in a dream state a dissolve into fireworks completes the shot.

Her emotives are not overwhelming as her character is accommodating not wanting or desiring to provoke anyone. She goes along to get along. Yet, hearing her unborn baby’s heartbeat, Mandzhieva emotes appropriately. Her facial features flush and her eyes become expressive as a tear of joy glides over and across her nose then gently rolling off the opposite cheek.

“The Gulls,” may not receive a mainstream distribution. Nevertheless, this isn’t the last time we’ll see this gorgeous regional cinema. The film received the support from the Russian Ministry of Culture. Manzheeva is gaining attention with this her first feature film and Mandzhieva is honing the craft in Moscow. No. This isn’t the last we’ll hear from this region. It’s just the beginning. Recommended.

 

 

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