By Robert Koehler
A suffocating, claustrophobic box canyon, lousy with industrial waste, is the dominant landscape of Kira Kovalenko’s second feature, Unclenching the Fists. Kovalenko, who workshopped with Alexander Sokurov but is firmly her own filmmaker, uses this place—Mizur, in the Caucasus highlands of North Ossetia-Alania—as a metonym for the awful, hopeless lives of her characters, all of whom appear to be on a one-way course to oblivion. Ada (the impressive Milana Aguzarova) suffers from a degenerative injury that demands medical attention, but her dictatorial and equally unwell father (Alik Karaev) lets her out only to go back and forth to work in a shop, holding onto her passport and the keys to their ratty apartment. While dad imprisons her, her younger brother is attached to her at the hip, and only her older brother (Soslan Khugaev) has somehow managed to get away. (His unexplained return to this Asshole of the World eventually provides Ada with a convenient deus ex machina on two wheels.) To make things worse, a local boy with an obsessive thing for Ada has fumbling sex with her, raising the spectre that—on top of every other problem—she may get pregnant.
The old, melodramatic kitchen-sink dramaturgy is miles behind Kovalenko’s vigorous, raucously physical sense of cinema, and it will be interesting to see if the two eventually meet up in her subsequent work. You’ll be hearing about her, since Unclenching the Fists (sure winner of this year’s most awkward title) won Cannes’ Un Certain Regard as it became the festival’s critical darling. This is doubtless because, in a terrible year for movies and not a very good one for Cannes, a generally okay movie looks simply awesome.