Closeness

Closeness ★½

[3]

This would have been merely a derivative starcrossed-lovers-divided-by-tradition drama (think second rate Zvyagintsev) were it not for one single, colossal misstep by first-time director Kantemir Balagov. During a party sequence, when Jewish girl protagonist Ilana (Darya Zhovnar) is with her non-Jewish boyfriend Zalim (Nazir Zukov) and his friends, one of the guys plays a video of some Chechen rebels slaughtering a Russian soldier. Only trouble is, this is not simulated. Balagov has incorporated an actual rebel snuff film into Closeness, for virtually no reason. (It sets up one of the guys to make a pro-Chechen, anti-Semitic remark.)

This is such an unconscionable lapse in ethical judgment that it practically makes the rest of Closeness beside the point. But the fact that there's so little there makes it even worse. Ilana is a more modern kid who wants life outside the strict confines of the strict Jewish community. And, when her brother David (Veniamin Kac) and his bride-to-be are kidnapped for ransom, the family doubles-down on Ilana's duties as a daughter. As the mother, cast in the role of Tradition, Olga Dragunova has a particularly thankless role.

Much has been made of the fact that this is one of the first features produced by Aleksandr Sokurov's new funding initiative. With its Academy ratio, grim naturalism, and of course its aggressive Jewishness, it's not very Sokurovian. But Closeness does sport a cultural conservatism that recalls Russia's Great Master, and the fact that this is a period piece (it takes place in 1989) probably reassures Putin, in the sense that it seems to place Russia's anti-Jewish animosities safely in the past. Yeah, right.