*As part of an educational partnership with University of Canberra, CIFF will publish a selection of works by UC Journalism students focussing on this year’s festival. Special thanks to Bronwyn Watson from UC.”
By Jack Clews
Even in complete isolation, there can remain a glimmer of hope. Ivan Tverdovsky’s Zoology manages to turn this glimmer into fully realised joy while still maintaining an underlying sense of dread and loneliness. There is a doubt that always remains, that it must all be too good to be true.
Natasha (Natalya Pavlenkova) is a middle aged loner, working in a menial job in which she is regularly the subject of bullying from co-workers. With her only real contact being her loving but increasingly senile mother, she drifts along while waiting for nothing in particular. This is until, after increasingly worsening back pain, she grows a tail. Her doctor orders her to undergo x-rays from radiologist Petyr (Dmitriy Groshev), finding that not only is he is one of the few not repulsed by her newfound appendage, but someone with genuine romantic feelings for her.
Through her tail, Natasha is confronted with both the simultaneous isolation and empowerment that come with it. Word soon spreads throughout the town of a ‘devil woman with a tail’, with Natasha herself stoking the fire of these murmurings. She is emboldened by the power and fear that she is able to strike after being ignored and ridiculed for so long. Through the tail, she is given a definitive identity that she would not otherwise have and as such, rejects the doctor’s advice of amputating it. She is finally able to control her own destiny after drifting for so long.
It’s impossible not to shake the feeling of this empowerment being fleeting with Natasha continually battling unsurmountable odds as she rebels against the oppressive and isolating Russian countryside. With the nation’s refusal to reward individualism, she finds herself literally demonised for her rejection of cultural norms. Working as a (perhaps slightly clunky) metaphor, Natasha’s tail embodies individuality and stands in stark contrast to the monolithic society surrounding her. This battle is reinforced through the impressive cinematography, continually portraying her against the cold, flat grey seaside or sterile hospital walls, always on the verge of being swallowed up within it.
Despite the rather obvious motif, Zoology avoids being defined as ‘the film about the woman with a tail’. A large part of this is due to Pavlenkova’s emotional vulnerability. Without her, it would be easy for the film’s fantastical elements to veer into ridiculousness. Instead, it is difficult not to feel overwhelming empathy for her character and a sense of pride as she takes control of her life.
With only his second film, Tverdovsky exhibits a quiet confidence and immense promise as a director, turning a farfetched narrative into a relatable one. For a cast and crew of relatively undiscovered or unknowns, Zoology is a surprise in its ability to deftly weave between loneliness, love, depression, joy, discomfort, humour and ultimately dread within a tight 86 minutes. If anything, the film sometimes attempts to tackle too much thematic content, especially for its brief running time but if the viewer allows themselves to go along for the ride, they are treated to an overall thoughtful, endearing and memorable journey.
Zoology will screen at the Canberra International Film Festival on Opening Night, Thursday 27 October. Book here.