Led by a superb central performance from Milana Aguzarova, this is a promising second feature from an up-and-coming filmmaker
When we’re introduced to Ada (Milana Aguzarova) in the opening of Unclenching the Fists, she’s digging her face into the collar of her jacket up to her nose, covering herself as with a mask. Ada will repeat this action throughout the film, befitting of a character who, up until now, has largely been uncertain about stepping foot into the world.
She’s a young adult in North Ossetia in Russia, deep in the Caucasus mountains on the border with Georgia (South Ossetia, on the Georgian side, was invaded by Russian troops in 2008). Ada seems to exist in a state of suspended adolescence: her father (Alik Karaev) is overprotective and physical, whilst her younger brother Dakko (Khetag Bibilov) is naive and not too bright. When elder brother Akim (Soslan Khugaev) returns from working odd jobs in Rostov, Ada’s desires to leave the stifling small mountain town become ever more pronounced.
Superficially, then, this is relatively familiar coming-of-age territory in Kira Kovalenko’s second feature, though for the attentive wrinkles will very quickly emerge. It’s not spelt out for unfamiliar audiences until very late in the film, but Ada is a survivor of the Beslan school siege in 2004, where terrorists took 1000 people hostage, eventually killing 333 of them, the majority who were children. Once this twigs, much of the strange behaviour of Ada and her family – Ada’s shyness and nervousness around male attention and her physical ailments, her father’s paranoia, the cautiousness of her brothers – suddenly makes sense.
What this is, then, is a fine and evocative character study of post-traumatic survival in a fiercely unfriendly and hostile modern Russia. Kovalenko and her star Aguzarova make an exquisite double-team, as the latter comes slowly out of her shell, first faltering, but gradually forming a sense of herself with the encouragement of her elder brother. Kovalenko, for her part, sticks to a long-take aesthetic with plenty of intimate close-ups, but avoids being gratuitous about Ada’s traumatic childhood. Many Eastern European arthouse favourites of recent years have the voyeuristic leer of poverty porn (not helped by the presence of Western European funders), and whilst Unclenching the Fists does bear some of the hallmarks, it is sensitively written and constructed, avoiding the major pitfalls.
There are occasional missteps (with the first third act being rather meandering and interest-free) and rather obvious metaphors: Ada’s father is in ill health, and frequently cramps into a catatonic, locked state. At one point his arms lock so strongly around Ada the pair have to go to hospital to be separated. It’s a too-obviously literal representation of his overbearing nature to work.
Yet other images feel refreshing and organic. The light will change from clear and airy to a sickly amber when a car drives into one of the many tunnels that dot the mountain roads, a fine evocation of how stifling small-town life can be in such remote hills. Kovalenko is certainly a sensitive, observant judge of her characters and a great director of performances. Here’s hoping her next film continues to build on that promise.
Unclenching the Fists is released on MUBI on 26 May.Where to watch