Review: The Postman’s White Nights (Konchalovskiy, 2014) – SFIFF 2015

Courtesy of the San Francisco Film Society

Courtesy of the San Francisco Film Society

Independent movies these days are full of films in which “nothing much happens,” which is understandable given that most of life for most people is rather monotonous, or at least defies a traditional narrative frame. These films often require a bit of discipline (and maybe even some pinching) to sit through and, though most of the time they’re well worth the effort (Amour, Mr. Turner), they can also be painfully meandering, somnolent, and poorly acted.

On paper, The Postman’s White Nights seems as though it could easily be in that latter category. Set in Russia’s far north, the film follows a middle-aged (actually, young, by local standards) postman Lyokha (Aleksey Tryapitsyn), who delivers mail by boat in his placid, sparsely inhabited countryside. He and his neighbors lead the somewhat insular life of rural folk anywhere; everyone knows everyone and all their history and business. One day Irina (Irina Ermolova), Lyokha’s childhood classmate, returns from the big city after her divorce, her young son Timur (Timur Bondarenko) in tow. Bachelor Lyokha starts hanging around her place and befriending her son, hoping to stir up a little romance, but Irina has little time to spare for country bumpkins–she’s looking for the fastest path back to the city.

That teaser I just wrote might as well have been a plot summary; little else “happens” in this film. Moreover, the majority of the cast are non-professional locals who use their own names in the movie, which usually means you can expect a good deal of wooden acting. And yet, The Postman’s White Nights has the feel of a film from a master director. Indeed, Andrey Konchalovskiy has been around for a long time, his first film appearing in 1961. Perhaps Konchalovskiy’s experience has taught him how to elicit natural performances from inexperienced actors, or perhaps (as my husband often claims) it is difficult to judge a performance’s quality when it’s in another language (having no sense of how a foreign tongue should sound, one wouldn’t notice an off-key delivery), but all the interactions in this film feel quite authentic, particularly that between Lyokha and Timur. Timur, especially, acts just like a real child–not precocious as many movie children are but silly, bratty, and charming in the surprising way of kids who, while not initially aiming to make us laugh, are nonetheless particularly delighted when we do.

Lyokha, too, is like a big child–irrepressible, well-intentioned, easy-going, and impulsive. His character keeps the film light-hearted and entertaining as we while away an hour and a half with him on the lake. Though The Postman is unlikely to make any waves, it will, like its cast, quietly worm its way into a small corner of your heart–at least it did mine.

The Postman’s White Nights screened at the San Francisco International Film Festival this past spring.