Reviews Short Narrative

Silt (2021) – 4 stars

Director: Mariya Kashlacheva

Writer: Mariya Kashlacheva

Cast: Viktor Shuralev, Vera Latysheva

Running time: 25mins

The early stages of a relationship are often thought of as the easy part – it is a phase where that initial spark is undisturbed by the baggage of the involved parties’ pasts, absent of the economic and social cruelties inflicted upon them by the wider world. But the longer things last, the more that context can creep into frame and snuff out the magic of those carefree early days.

Silt (Ил, or Country in its original Russian) centres on a crossroads in an enchanted relationship, where the fantastical begins to come under pressure from the encroaching brutality of modern life. Written and directed by Mariya Kashlacheva, this unabashedly unconventional short is at times beguiling and devastating. It is a realist-fable, toying with our expectations mercilessly, confounding them at one moment, before living up to them in chilling detail the next.

Misha (Viktor Shuralev) is a young doctor who, instead of moving to Moscow to advance his career, has chosen to practice medicine in rural Russia. In its script and cinematography, this story is built around contrasts; and Misha’s surroundings have an idyllic charm, but are also racked with deprivation. It is an area of natural beauty, and the people are presented as pleasantly ‘eccentric’ – but under the surface, they struggle with poverty and neglect. They toil to keep the bare necessities on the table, even as their bodies fall apart in Misha’s surgery; and while their mental health similarly crumbles – abandoned by a civil society that has never recovered from the economic shock therapy of the early 1990s.

For all the apparent ‘rustic charms’ the middle-class poverty porn of Western cinema has trained us to see here, then, what we are actually being introduced to is a powder keg of scarcity and resentment – just waiting for a spark from some sense of ‘otherness’ to set the whole thing off. This spark comes in the form of Misha’s lover, who is simply credited as Mermaid.

Misha has moved in with Mermaid (Vera Latysheva) for a while by the looks of it. A woman from the hips up, as her name suggests she has a set of fins where you would normally expect legs. She sits in his bathtub during the day, watching old ballet on a cathode television, surrounded by mirrors to catch the light of the sun. Meanwhile, at night, Egorych (Sergey Trifonov) – the driver of the ambulance – transports them to a local swimming pool for some extra space. They have, so far, been undisturbed in those halcyon days of early love, without external complications.

Egorych is a good ally, willing to keep the existence of a mermaid a secret from the rest of the village. Sadly, the same is not true of Misha’s parents. Disappointed in their son’s choice of partner – spitting asides about “feeding our grandchildren worms in a pond”, Misha’s mother is particularly resentful. Upon encountering the village’s gossip – a ‘pig farmer’ who doesn’t own any pigs – she decides to “do something” by informing on her.

As anyone who has lived in the suffocating forced pleasantry of a village will know, while people are warm and welcoming when they need something from you, dare to stand out from the crowd and people will happily use it as an outlet for all their frustrations. Misha might have been their first port of call to treat their prolapsed anus or their whooping cough but by inviting a ‘supernatural’ force into the town he has allegedly caused every other ill in their lives. Undoubtedly, before the arrival of his “scaly, slimy” paramour, this village was a utopia of abundance and tolerance and had not been cast aside by the oligopoly that holds a stranglehold on the country’s power and wealth…

So we come to the film’s third act – where our expectations are once again flipped on their head to sickening effect. Having first settled into this world from a realist lens, and a no-frills approach to life in rural Russia, we were briefly surprised by the injection of a fantasy element which we identify with a happier alternative reality, and dared to hope. Now, like the lovers entering that difficult, unchartered territory beyond the honeymoon phase, we are aware that this magic exists in a world which, rather than being conducive to its flourishing, seems actively hostile to it.

Angry villagers gather with flaming torches outside Misha and Mermaid’s home. It is the one scene in which I would argue the film’s cinematography lets it down slightly. Perhaps the logistics of what follows were simply not possible to actually stage, so close-ups and half-shots stand in for the wide establishing shots our eyes are craving for context and closure. But anyone familiar with the work of Ken Loach will be familiar with the gut-punch which is being implied. It’s Kes all over again, with the hope, that the love and care of fostering a young kestrel brought out in Billy Casper, being cruelly snuffed out.

In this case, however, Kashlacheva does allow a little breathing room – a little potential for dreaming of a life beyond disaster and hate. A postscript sees the village gossip speculating on the doctor’s whereabouts, and the strange survival of a bathtub in the house she just helped burn down. Meanwhile, the faithful Egorych rows a portable television out into the middle of a nearby lake. The film has arguably less of the harsh credibility of a Loach film for this reason – but in a film where mermaids exist, who on Earth would begrudge that?

Sometimes, tonal dissonance is a problem in cinema. If a film veers drastically from comedy to fantasy to melodrama, it can lead to confused storytelling, and a sense that the creators did not really know what kind of story they wanted to tell. Silt is a film which thrives on this dissonance, though. It works as a cautionary tale, warning against the impulse of lashing out at those around us for problems which have institutional and systemic roots. It works as a treatise on modern love, and the pressures even the most faithful, committed partnerships come up against in an unequal and atomised society. And honestly, it just works as a film about a mermaid – a modern, sweet-hearted fairy-tale about fantastical lovers.

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