Judge Paul Pritchard's summer ended with severe rectal trauma.
"This is not a playground."
Rarely does a film with a cast of just two make for an appealing proposition. The sheer lack of numbers will, rightly or wrongly, suggest minimal incident and a tendency toward more arthouse fare. While I don't doubt How I Ended This Summer will play well to more highbrow viewers, writer/director Alexei Popogrebsky's film has the potential to find a much wider audience.
Facts of the Case
A small meteorological station in the Arctic Circle is home to two men, Pavel (Grigory Dobrygin) and Sergei (Sergei Puskepalis), who are tasked with taking readings of the radiation levels in the area. Each of the two men has their own way of dealing with the isolation and repetitiveness the job entails, though there is a palpable tension between them.
Each hour the men must report in to their HQ and provide updated readings, during which it is not uncommon for the two men to receive messages passed on by their family back home. When Sergei leaves to go on a fishing trip, Pavel receives devastating news pertaining to Sergei's family. Unsure—or unwilling—to pass the news on, Pavel keeps the news from his colleague, leading to a continual breakdown in their relationship. Inevitably the truth is eventually revealed, leading to an explosive confrontation that threatens the lives of both men.
It's astonishing that How I Ended This Summer manages to evoke so much. From the obvious nuclear fears that the film plays upon, to the more human questions it raises, there is much to admire here—and nothing more so than the fractured relationship between its two leads. The potential for conflict between the two men is made abundantly clear very early on. That How I Ended This Summer is in no rush to bring this conflict to the fore, preferring instead to let is simmer, only strengthens the film as a whole.
Popogrebsky is clearly interested in how isolation, and the harsh landscape, affects his characters, and in particular, the way in which this isolation affects how each man conceives the passing of time. This last point is important in understanding each character better, as the long days take their toll on each man's psyche. Pavel, the younger of the two men by some way, is extremely impatient and prone to slacking off; Sergei, on the other hand, is clearly a seasoned veteran, and cares little for what he considers Pavel's lack of commitment as he sticks to his rigid routine. Where Pavel retreats into his MP3 player and videogames—doing all he can to remove himself from the reality he faces—Sergei immerses himself in his work and has found an equilibrium with his environment. The differences in the two men could also be seen as a comment on the generational divide, with the older Sergei—a man raised to understand the importance of taking on responsibility—unable to comprehend Pavel's carefree, lackadaisical approach to work.
Pavel's reasons for not informing Sergei of the fate that has befallen his family are not made wholly clear. It could be the recommendation that he leave Sergei alone once he passes on the message, the suggestion being that Sergei may become unstable while forced to wait several days for evacuation. Regardless, the longer Pavel leaves it, the more his reasons for keeping quiet increase. In one sequence—having discovered Pavel has been taking false isotope readings—Sergei recounts an event that took place long before Pavel's arrival at the station. Sergei recalls how two workers had a falling out, and how all that is left of one of them is a hole in the ceiling of the smoking room. It's not made explicitly clear, but Sergei certainly leaves open the possibility that it was he who dispatched his old comrade. Popogrebsky utilizes Pavel's growing unease to slowly build the tension; each communiqué with the mainland becomes almost nerve shredding, as Pavel desperately tries to hide the truth from Sergei, knowing that the older man is sure to explode upon discovering his betrayal. Until the truth finally outs itself, Pavel spins an ever more complex web of lies to keep Sergei in the dark, all the time knowing that the longer he keeps up the facade, the worse Sergei's reaction is likely to be. Once Sergei finally discovers the truth, the film changes tack. Instead of a study of the effects of isolation on two men, How I Ended This Summer becomes a taut thriller, with Pavel and Sergei taking part in a deadly game of cat and mouse.
How I Ended This Summer shares similarities with Tarkovsky's Stalker—something actively acknowledged by Popogrebsky, not least by the inclusion of the videogame S.T.A.L.K.E.R., itself inspired Tarkovsky's film. Along with the way in which each film is concerned with the passing of time, both present a vision of an almost post-apocalyptic world. Though Stalker is far more upfront about this, Popogrebsky takes a more subtle approach, presenting a picture of a world slowly eroding, with the landscape littered with signs of decay-h-ighlighted by the radiation-leaking isotope beacon. That said: How I Ended This Summer is a less dense work than Tarkovsky's 1979 masterpiece, and presents far fewer questions for the viewer. Nevertheless, How I Ended This Summer is likely to remain with the viewer for some time.
The two leads are excellent, and it is to their credit that we, the viewer, become neither bored nor uninterested during any point of the film. Both actors put in equally absorbing performances, so much so that we require no direct explanations for either character; instead, everything we learn about them comes directly via the readings Grigory Dobrygin and Sergei Puskepalis give of their roles.
How I Ended This Summer is quite simply a beautifully shot film. The ice-covered landscapes are immediately striking, and as the weather conditions change—often at a frighteningly quick pace—the look of the film changes, too. The locales are an important element of How I Ended This Summer, and so it is a relief to be able to report the 1.85:1 anamorphic transfer is so impressive. The image is sharp, with natural colors and deep blacks. There's a good level of fine detail. Likewise, the 5.1 soundtrack completely immerses the viewer thanks to a dynamic mix that utilizes the rear speakers extremely well. Dialogue is crisp throughout—as are individual sounds—and the subtitles are without fault.
The sole extra, as seems to be the case for all Film Movement releases, is a short film. In the case of How I Ended This Summer, the short comes in the shape of "First Day Of Peace," and revolves around a peasant on the day peace is declared in Bosnia.
How I Ended This Summer rewards the more patient viewer, with its story unfolding at a languid pace. Though Popogresbsky's narrative is lacking in great incident, he achieves a vice-like grip on his audience, thanks to his fascinating character study, not to mention some sumptuous scenery.
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Studio: Film Movement
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