Although Russian director Aleksey German Jr.’s incisive, nuanced new feature House Arrest (Delo) takes place almost entirely in one cluttered if spacious apartment, its thematic scope spreads wide, well beyond this story of a middle-aged academic David (Merab Ninidze) who is falsely accused of embezzlement.
Openly critical of the endemic corruption and state-sponsored violence that’s metastasized throughout Russia, this international co-production will resonate with anyone aware of how harshly people are treated who speak out throughout that country. Compared to German’s oblique and rigorously arthouse previous films, starting with such austere period dramas as The Last Train and Garpastum in the aughts and continuing on up to the sprawling Under Electric Clouds (2015) and beyond, House Arrest is downright accessible and straightforward. That may help it find some release out of the festival circuit after its premiere in Cannes’ Un Certain Regard strand.
A timely critique.
Although the pro-protest stance will win the film sympathy outside of Russia, if you assess just exactly where the narrative ends up, it’s not that scathing a critique. David is no saintly political martyr, but a flawed individual driven equally by his own ego and righteous indignation. Even the thing that gets David into trouble in the first place is not some samizdat-style act of biting satire: He just drew a caricature of the mayor having sex with an ostrich. Why an ostrich, everyone asks him throughout the film, but he just shrugs. Why not an ostrich?
Animal choice notwithstanding, the drawing pissed off the mayor of the provincial university town where David lives enough that he sicced his minions on David and had him accused of embezzling funds meant to finance an international academic conference. David, it emerges, is a professor of Russian literature, a specialist on what’s called the Silver Age, roughly 1890-1940, and particularly loves poets such as modernist experimentalists Osip Mandelstam and Anna Akhmatova.
It’s not hard to imagine German, whose style as a filmmaker tends toward the oneiric and the lyrical, feels a particular sympathy with his character’s tastes, even if that puts him out of step with the orthodoxy of the lumpen proletariat. At one point, a farcical demonstration gets organized by David’s enemies, composed of a gaggle of shabby-looking, probably paid “volunteers” who stand outside David’s apartment building and noisily accuse him of being “Professor Liar.” Shouting down from his balcony, he gets into an argument with one who accuses him, nonsensically, of sullying the name of Pushkin and who seems to think Tolstoy wrote Crime and Punishment, a misattribution David scathingly corrects. Ninidze, with his square glasses and wavy dark hair — and who has appeared in several of German’s films — even looks a bit like a Georgian version of Philip Roth, all arrogant intelligence.
As the film elapses, and David’s apartment gets dirtier and more disorganized, a steady stream of visitors come trying to persuade him to simply confess to the trumped-up charges and therefore avoid a prison sentence. His elderly mother (Roza Khairullina, rocking an elegant close crop of white hair) wants only what’s best for him, but still will consider running off with him as long as she can be Clyde to his Bonnie. His ex-wife (Anastasia Melnikova) brings food and sound advice, but given that her current partner, a contractor, gets half his business from the city, she’s not so keen on helping David get
the receipts that could help prove that it’s the mayor who is the biggest thief in their town. Even his doctor (Svetlana Khodchenkova) tries to convince him to give up. Only his lawyer Anna (Anna Mikhalkova, always worth rooting for) seems entirely on his side in this quixotic quest to clear his name.
But those who wish to silence David get more aggressive as the story goes on, with strange men showing up in the middle of the night to beat him up and attempt to slit his throat. No one seems at all surprised about this, least of all the surprisingly sympathetic policeman (Alexander Pal) who also wearily comes round to try to persuade David to change his plea. David tries to patronize him too when he picks up a copy of Animal Farm, but the cop knows his George Orwell. “I prefer 1984,” he says, because that’s a more accurate representation of the regime they’re all living under.
These days, as the world slowly emerges from the trauma of the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s impossible not to see reflections of our recent experiences in the art we consume. That means films about people being confined to their house like this, albeit for a very different reason, can accrue an accidental resonance, even if German has reportedly said that he’s been planning to make this story for years. Nevertheless, the quote from Jean-Paul Sartre’s The Flies that opens the film feels as apt for the situation David finds himself in as for all of us who have survived so far: “Human life begins on the far side of despair.”