SFIFF58: The Postman’s White Nights

Courtesy of the San Francisco Film Society.
Courtesy of the San Francisco Film Society.

The Postman’s White Nights
Written by Elena Kiseleva and Andrey Konchalovskiy
Directed by Andrey Konchalovskiy
Russia, 2014

Set on the beautiful, densely wooded shores of Lake Kenozero in northern Russia, Andrey Konchalovskiy’s The Postman’s White Nights, winner of the Silver Lion at last year’s Venice International Film Festival, is an offbeat exploration of small town life through the eyes of the titular postman Lyokha (Aleksey Tyrapitsyn), whose job creates the sole tenuous link between the insular village and the outside world. Relying on a cast comprising non-actors, the fictional narrative is a triumph of verisimilitude that spins a delicate web of intimacy and levity by capturing fleeting moments and small gestures.

In his habitual uniform of camo, black galoshes and large satchel, Lyokha crosses the lake each day by boat, picking up mail and other necessities to deliver to his neighbors. But as he makes his rounds, it becomes obvious that his role exceeds that of mere letter carrier; to the aging population he is an able listener, almost a therapist of sorts. Perhaps it is not the life he dreamed of, but Lyokha takes pride in his work.

The village itself, unnamed except for the lake upon whose shore it rests, is so remote that technology has not permeated it. And, yet, evidence that the rural lifestyle is crumbling is everywhere – the sole school in the area has long been shuttered, and regulations on fishing (the local livelihood) continue to climb. No one says it outright but the village is going extinct; children are scarce and the majority of people left are bordering on elderly. In one telling scene, the general from a nearby military base comes by to pick up fish, then leaves Lyokha to clean up the debris scattered by the chopper that he arrived in.

Though set in remote Russia, Lyokha’s story could be transposed into any small town. Konchalovskiy captures the character’s restlessness, the cattiness that develops between those who have lived too close for too long, and the tension between those who leave and those who stay. It is implied that the villagers who left for the city did so to look for opportunity but, as a visit to Lyokha’s sister shows, not everyone finds prosperity so easily.

Lyokha rekindles a friendship with a former classmate and single mother, Irina (Irina Ermolova), becoming a surrogate father figure to her son Timur (Timur Bondarenko). But when Irina takes her leave to return to the city, Lyokha finds himself paralyzed and unable to follow. Life may be monotonous on Kenozero Lake but, for some people like Lyokha, the idea of leaving it behind is too much.

An eloquent study of seeking interpersonal connection in a fragmented society, The Postman’s White Nights is worth a viewing for those seeking something thoughtful and meditative rather than the latest blockbuster.

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