Dni zatmeniya

(The Days of Eclipse, Soviet Union - 1988)

by Mike Lorefice

Cast: Aleksei Ananishnov, Eskender Umarov, Vladimir Zamansky
Genre: Sci-Fi/Drama
Director: Alexsandr Sokurov
Screenplay: Arkadi Strugatsky, Boris Strugatsky, Yuri Arabov, Pyotr Kadochnikov
Cinematography: Sergei Yurizditsky
Composer: Yuri Khanin
Runtime: 131 minutes

Point of view shots of someone inside looking out suggest a spaceship landing in an arid rubble filled Central Asian landscape inhabited by displaced refugees of all USSR nations. The camera zooms in and out, pans across objects near and far, utilizes heavenly and wandering eye POV shots that cannot be coming from any of the humans, regularly denying the audience perspective and identification.

Though very much a science fiction, this otherworldly presence never manifests, at least not into a tangible form. Perhaps it could best be described as a mystical form of Big Brother. Like Victor Erice’s masterpiece Spirit of the Beehive, the actual tyrant is unseen and unmentioned, but the effects of his damage permeate every frame. The state’s statues persist, as relics whose meaning is long forgotten, lifeless as the ideals they were built on. However, the Russian citizens have been lost to the crumbling state system, somewhere between relocation and reprogramming. The older Asians sit and pray all day, while the younger Europeans attempt to work, though only for themselves as their dreams have been crushed through the realization the mission statement was held up for motivation, self protection, and to keep the able from rebelling.

Everyone seems conscious they’re letting life pass them by, but lack an outlet to reverse the trend. They suffer from three unders – employment, equipment, and entertainment. Whatever the inhabitants do to pass the time is repeated endlessly, yet no more meaning is found. If anything, it’s repeated because there is no meaning. Those who still believe its worth exerting the effort find an empty pointless ritual they know they can get away with to channel it into. The police and military rule the roost, but even they just stand around, making a random gesture once in a while to justify their presence.

There’s one man who is different, a young idealistic doctor Malyanov (Aleksei Ananishnov, who also starred in Sokurov’s somewhat linked Mother & Son) who accepts that the state knows best, takes their posting, and tries for them. He attempts to convince himself this is as good a place as any. He’s a successful high-spirited go getter, determined to accomplish something in spite of the adverse conditions.

Everyone is haggard except Malyanov, who looks like a refugee from the underwear ads, and his Fassbinder looking friend Alexander (Eskender Umarov). The locals have little use for the doctor’s remedies. He doesn’t speak the Asian’s language, and the few patients he has wind up ignoring his advice. He’s unable to assimilate himself to what’s left of the various groups cultures, always an outsider looking in. Even when he tries to break up a fight, he gets bet up by both men, who walk away as friends leaving him on the ground.

Worse than his unfulfilling work, Malyanov claims his only friend is a parrot, now deceased. Alexsandr Sokurov allows all the mysterious and mystical details to seep into the tale of endless empty days. The lone workaholic falls prey to solitude and isolation due to being underutilized like the rest of the inhabitants, and begins to have bizarre thoughts, nightmares, and hallucinations. We often can’t be sure if his visitors are real or imagined.

The suicide of his neighbor Andrej Pavlovich really bothers Malyanov, even though he barely knew him. He winds up with Pavlovich’s writings, bringing him to life in death. Writing seems the only point of life in this dune filled wasteland. It demands thought and attention, thus keeping your mind active. It will eventually find an audience, even if only of one. But in a sense even this freedom of thought is meaningless, as your words are liable to end up in the hands of a representative of the crushing system, the policeman who finds your corpse. Nonetheless, it’s a chance to bare witness, a last dying protest.

Writing kept the doctor alive even before he knew Pavlovich did the same. He chooses his own research project, spending sweaty days typing with one finger on each hand. He doesn’t really believe he’ll ever submit his work to the medical community, but if he’s lucky he’ll pass it on to a friend, communicating more to them when he’s gone than he ever could in person.

The discovery of meaning through human relationship temporarily renews Malyanov’s faith in the system. He finds an underfed sickly child (Seryozha Krylov), and knows that unlike the man who eats needles which mysteriously don’t show up in Malyanov’s X-rays, he could actually help this kid. What’s more, his research could be passed on to him. It’s his hope for salvation, until the child is ripped from his side. This event prompts a reversal of the stunning opening sequences, exiting earth in heavenly closeup that reveals more and more as the aliens back away from the planet. Perhaps the only alien is Malyanov himself, and now his spirit has departed? Malyanov now knows for sure he should leave Turkmenistan, but unlike Alexander he can’t bring himself to abandon his post because to do so would be to forsake all he’s been taught.

Sokurov is at his artistic peak in Days of the Eclipse. He regularly mixes post-processed images, moving form black and white to color to sepia tones to alter our perception of the world. Elongation of time is achieved through the inactivity of the lengthy takes, the patience of the camera failing to match that of those stuck in the wasteland, as it chooses to focus on something else in the midst of several scenes. These techniques along with the palpable heat, fear, paranoia, imposing landscapes, and general confusion create the specter of more powerful forces.

If you were baffled by the comparisons to the great master Sokurov studied under, Andrei Tarkovsky, because you started with Sokurov’s recent films such as the interminable Moloch, you’ll be pleasantly that Tarkovsky lives in The Days of Eclipse. Even if much of the mysticism and meditation are replaced by what, like Father and Son appears to most people other than Sokurov to be homoeroticism, The sepia tones, lengthy takes, influence of the settings, and sense of mystery are present. The Days of Eclipse is even based on a story by the Strugatsky brothers, who turned their novel "The Roadside Picnic" into Tarkovsky’s second sci-fi masterpiece Stalker. This is easily the most beautiful, challenging, and technically dazzling Sokurov film I’ve seen.


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