Words like banal, uneventful and repetitive are normally viewed as having negative connotations. However, in Andrei Konchalovsky’s The Postman’s White Nights, they describe a life most modern iPhone and Android addicts wouldn’t understand. There are no game consoles; no fidget spinners. On these small Russian islands, one would be hard pressed to find a vehicle other than a fishing boat. Life by Kenozero Lake has its own rhythm and routine. As much as there are mundane daily tasks, there are also warm camaraderie and a familiarity between neighbors and colleagues that modern society lacks.
The region’s postman (Aleksey Tryapitsyn) deals with personal demons (or, more specifically, a mysterious grey cat) as he tends to his daily chores. Not only does he deliver mail to the villagers, but also checks in on them and brings them groceries. He even temporarily adopts a young boy to keep him entertained and enriched. Otherwise what would the child do all day while his mother takes secret lovers in the back room of their house? Possibly the best parts of The Postman are the scenes where the mailman and the young boy interact. There’s an amusing and touching scene of the pair skimming along the lake looking for Kikimora. This ‘ghost’ from Russian folklore scares the child into a fit of tears, because let’s face it – children see things that adults cannot. The scene can be interpreted as complete terror if the viewer is sympathetic to the young character’s emotions. Simultaneously, we can’t help but see the humor that only an adult can detect. Children are funny creatures who panic over bogeymen, while adults tell them they’re seeing things. But again, children often see what grownups miss. The postman is visibly confused when he discovers the child’s mother’s sexual encounters. However, the child nonchalantly refers to his mother’s habit as if it were the most obvious thing in the world. The combination of adult naivety and childhood wisdom create an interesting duo.
Aside from this unexpected friendship, not much else happens in this community. Old men are longtime drunks, most people aren’t employed, and so-called friends turn on each other with petty arguments but then forgive each other because that’s all they can do in their self-contained, sleepy microcosm.
Often, such remote locations bring together a tight-knit community, but its side effect is creating friction between its inhabitants. Konchalovsky has used this to introduce characters that already existed before starting his project. Most of the cast members are not professional actors, but real villagers. They aren’t necessarily portraying themselves to a fault, but the characters are said to be ‘pieces’ or versions of themselves. With only a loose script, the players were encouraged to adlib and interact, probably as they already might off set. This offers an element of authenticity that puts The Postman under a semi-documentary category.
Further adding to the pseudo-reality TV feel, Konchalovsky and Director of Photography, Alexander Simonov installed cameras at angles to give the impression we’re watching private moments of unsuspecting people. The ‘candid camera’ effect doesn’t add humor or much content, but does give an air of voyeurism. Though these camera angles loosen as the story progresses, the first few occurrences allow us to follow the postman in his quotidian routine as if perched on his shoulder like a bird. One scene that will affect every viewer – regardless of how – is the long shot of the protagonist venturing across the vast waters of Kenozersky National Park. Nature reflects in the mirror of tiny ripples and because there’s no specific action, the boat ride becomes a droning hypnosis. This scene captures the essence of The Postman – that life is a partnership between repetitive platitudes and serene beauty.
Konchalovsky has a filmography of both celebrated and less acclaimed oeuvres. His top Russian film is Siberiade (1979), but it is the Oscar nominated Runaway Train (1985) that gave him more recognition in America. He has also collaborated with Andrei Tarkovsky’s on earlier films. Konchalovsky turns 80 this year, and to celebrate, Carusel Film Distribution is planning a career retrospective. The Postman’s White Nights is late to Montreal cinemas (it won the Silver Lion for best director at the 71st Venice International Film Festival in 2014), but will premiere with English subtitles at the Forum de Montreal, and with French subtitles at the Cinémathèque Québécoise, on June 16, 2017