Close Quarters
By Ela Bittencourt

NYFF 2021:
Unclenching the Fists
Dir. Kira Kovalenko, Russia, Kino Lorber

Alexander Sokurov is renowned for his oblique directorial style, with mesmerizing, painterly effects, so it’s surprising—and also refreshing— that he is proving to have had such influence on the new school of Russian realism. One of Sokurov’s film students, Kantemir Balagov, won the directing prize for his second feature, Beanpole, in the Un Certain Regard section at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival; another, Kira Kovalenko, won the Grand Prize in the same section this year, for her sophomore drama Unclenching the Fists, whose title hints at both its content and form.

The plot can be outlined succinctly enough: a young Muslim woman, Ada (Milana Aguzarova), from a small mining town in North Ossetia, tries to escape the tight grip of her strict, domineering father (Alik Karaev), who’s ill. Yet there are many complexities beneath this simple outline: for one, the father’s insistence on keeping Ada close to home is conditioned by the fact that her mother has passed away, possibly from surgical complications, after being a victim in a hostage standoff, in which Ada was also injured. Kovalenko sprinkles basic details of the Russian-Chechnyan conflict, though such spareness isn’t a drawback; one might argue that by not getting bogged down in the historical, political, ethnic, or religious contexts, the director can better tend to her characters’ intense personal conflicts. It’s enough for viewers to get the essential tension in Kovalenko’s family drama: Following the hostage tragedy, Ada struggles not to be a victim again, this time to her strict family. Indeed, of all the ills that befall her, it’s the toxic patriarchy that most hampers Ada’s recovery.

Ada’s injuries raise the stakes considerably, since, as a woman just emerging from adolescence, she is eager to explore her sexuality. The father and Ada’s older brother, Akim (Soslan Khugaev), who moved away to a city but has reluctantly returned to visit, discuss Ada’s need for further surgery. Ada shows her stomach scars to her would-be boyfriend, Tamik (Arsen Khetagurov); she’s also forced to wear a diaper, which compounds her isolation and shame. During Tamik and Ada’s first intimate moment, at the small local store where she works, their coitus ends in Ada accidentally urinating. In the complexly wrought scene, Kovalenko manages to balance the crudeness of teenage sex, awkward to the point of grotesqueness, with unexpected emotional maturity and generosity on the part of her otherwise reticent, somewhat stunted characters. It’s a tipping point for Tamik and Ada: she had dismissed his advances to protect herself—since his keenness on intimacy frightens her—but starts to appreciate him; Tamik, for his part, sheds his childishness for an instant to comfort Ada at her most vulnerable.

Such pivots, from emotional roughness to flash tenderness, define Unclenching the Fists, perhaps most notably in Ada and Akim’s thorny relationship with their father. From the first scene, the patriarch dictates Ada’s every single step. When she gets her first flask of perfume, he immediately can’t stand the scent and has her pour it out. He locks the door and keeps the only key to the apartment; he questions Ada about her comings and goings, to the point that Ada is scared to take a carefree ride with Tamik in his van. And yet Ada maintains a rebellious streak. Her father’s intrusiveness is so suffocating, so overbearing and laced with holier-than-thou certainty, that it’s turned her into a savvy risk-taker. There are hints of her previous escapes from home; she’s strategizing her next, enlisting Akim in her plan. In one of the most captivating yet mortifying sequences in the film, Ada, Akim, and their younger brother, Dakko (Khetag Bibilov), leave their collapsed father at home—at Ada’s insistence—to go dancing. Their bodies pressed tight, disco lights flash about them. Such relative stillness comes in the midst of a psychological pendulum: Ada wants to dance then doesn’t; Akim won’t let her leave the apartment but changes his mind; he jeers at her for wanting to dance then practically drags her to the dance floor.

The constant push-pull can at times seem like Kovalenko’s characters are wearing each other down, their lives one incessant wrestling match. However discomfiting, this wrangling is also riveting. It’s perhaps in this working with the actors that one can speak of a certain “new Sokurov school”—though not as a defined program like the Stanislavsky Method. Still, both Balagov and Kovalenko apply a strong conceptual framework to their direction of actors. In Balagov’s Beanpole, there was something arched, at times eerily mechanical, in the two main actresses’ movements. In Unclenching the Fists, there’s also a mannered approach to bodily motion. The actors cling, wrestle, clench, and grapple with each other nearly at all times, often in distinct couplets. Dakko crawls into bed with Ada when he can’t sleep and nearly suffocates her. Ada nestles so close to Akim’s chest during one of their tense exchanges about her wish to flee with him that it seems like he might keel or violently shove her away. In fact, the physical pull between these two siblings, the way that space seems to collapse around and between them with each electrifying touch, carries a nearly sensual charge, and is one of the film’s most potent mysteries. (In this way, the film is close to Claire Denis’s Nénette and Boni, in which sibling love-hate also produced dangerous, subconsciously carnal, and possessive sparks.)

Then there’s the cruder wrestling between Ada and her boyfriend, which grows more tender, particularly as Tamik takes Ada to meet his pals. Finally, there is the father’s obdurate grip, which seems to shutter Ada’s hopes of surgery and healing. Some of this smothering’s literalness is excessive; the father’s early forbidding glances prove equally, if not more, oppressive than his physical hold. But by the end, Kovalenko astutely softens the tensions between the father and daughter to some degree of understanding and acceptance: from the father’s clinginess and victimhood to his leaning on Ada in their final scene—this time not for support alone but to give her back her passport, so that she may leave and seek treatment.

While the father’s giving in seems abrupt, after Kovalenko’s devoting so much time to his vehement temper, it’s perhaps also a necessary acknowledgment of Akim’s upper hand, as the family’s future male authority figure. In this sense, Ada may have won only the first of many battles. Nevertheless, there’s a clear sense of victory in the film’s final scene, as Ada and Akim drive away on the highway on his motorbike. A wedding convoy passes by, but the image shakes and blurs. Here Kovalenko lets go of her previously static and tight compositions that have kept Ada centered, as if pinned down, to channel the jitters of finally breaking free.