Kira Kovalenko’s Unclenching of the Fists is set in North Ossetia, in the Russian Caucasus, the site of the horrific Beslan School attack of 2004. Ada (Milana Aguzarova), the teenage protagonist, is a survivor of that three-day siege by Chechnyan rebels at war with Russia. She is disfigured and needs surgery to heal her remaining wounds. Her possessive father (Alik Karaev) will not take her to the hospital and has hidden her passport to ensure that she will not run away.
This bleak drama, Kovalenko’s sophomore feature, is a tale of repressed male desire and bestiality, and is based on the life of a young woman born in a village not far from where the filmmaker spent her childhood. “Unclenching,” in which the actors speak in the Ossetian language of that Iranian ethnic group, won the Un Certain Regard prize at Cannes, no doubt for its stylized execution. Kovalenko’s linear narrative is from Ada’s point-of-view and begins with a deftly edited sequence of her desperate circumstances.
At work in a clothing shop, Ada is aggressively pursued by Tamik (Arsen Khetagurov), a local boy. Her naïveté makes her vulnerable to Tamik’s flattery, although she resists, for reasons that become apparent when she returns home. Ada pounds her fist on the door—her father, Zaur, holds the only key that locks from the inside. When he and Ada, and her brother Dakko (Khetag Bibilov) are seated at the table for the meal Ada prepared, Zaur asks her whether “he” liked the perfume she is wearing, correctly guessing that his daughter has a suitor. Before Ada can recover to deny it, her father demands that she pour the perfume down the drain. Later, asleep in her room, a space separated by a curtain, Dakko jumps on her bed, and although Ada reminds him he is not allowed to sleep with her, she cannot separate herself from his grasp.
Engulfed by the violent and menacing fact of her father’s and her brother’s repressed desire, Ada at first muses that Tamik’s affection may rescue her. Too young and too psychologically battered to see through his lust, she allows herself to be seduced by him in a riveting scene in which the camera remains fixed on her face. Kovalenko’s female gaze picks out the discomfort and disappointment of every heterosexual girl’s first sexual encounter—Tamik admitting to his fumbling—as well as the relief apparent in Ada’s face at the end. Now she anticipates a lasting relationship.
Tamik’s eventual betrayal of her leads Ada to turn to her last hope, her older brother Akim (Soslan Aguzarova), who returns home for their father’s birthday celebration. Akim is slow to recognize his sister’s misery. Like all the characters in the movie, Akim has no backstory, and that combined with Kovalenko’s use of an amateur cast, except in the leading roles of Ada and Zaur, leaves the already tenuous, 97-minute screenplay with too much reliance on exposition. Take the lengthy scene that follows the seduction, in which Tamik frolics in a swimming hole with other boys. Milana Aguzarova, although still an acting student, skillfully and quickly communicates her dawning knowledge of Tamik’s abandonment in that scene. Soslan Aguzarova is not as forthcoming.
Several scenes of his smoldering character, Akim, remain equivocal; even when his father tells him it is time for him to go back to the city, Akim’s emotions are unclear. At first, Ada’s older sibling is cruel, focusing on her desire to dance at a club as a way of escaping her pleas for help. Only in retrospect will the audience grasp that the disturbing dance scene is the beginning of Akim’s flailing. He resists Ada’s distress because of his fear of entanglement, of being drawn back to the village he left behind.
It is difficult to know what informed Kovalenko’s impulse for drawn out action that could be dialogue, and that is sometimes both, as when Tamik’s line in the swimming scene confirms his actions and what the audience already knows from Ada’s performance. The underlying weakness of the film lies in the screenplay, although Kovalenko’s direction and her preoccupations in this film mark the emergence of a new voice.
Others may perceive in Unclenching of the Fists, which refers to Zaur’s last, painful gasp of authority over Ada (and to Marco Bellocchio’s 1965 Fists in the Pocket), as a metaphor for the circumstances of the Ossetians or, for that matter, the Chechens, of generations of people living under Russian occupation. Ada’s status as a survivor of state violence, in particular of Beslan, lends this dimension to Kovalenko’s film, yet Ada’s plight is also intensely personal for the female filmmaker. By the time Ada’s passport is shoved into the pocket of her jacket, she has already gained her freedom from family and state, the twin patriarchal structures that violate women. And Akim is along for the ride.
This review is from the New York Film Festival. Unclenching the Fists will be released in the U.S. by MUBI.