When faced with an extensive festival programme, and one as vibrant as that of the 2017 Glasgow Film Festival, choosing which events to attend feels like an impossible choice.
However, after lengthy consideration on the Glasgow Film Festival website, I found myself completely smitten by Ivan Tverdovsky’s 2016 film Zoology, showing in Glasgow’s Centre for Contemporary Arts (CCA). The film was shown twice during the festival and was fairly popular among attendees; however, it wasn’t as well attended as you might expect.
In summary, Zoology — a Russian film — celebrates staying true to yourself and the joy in remembering to enjoy every moment of life regardless of age, gender, or physical limitation.
Flawed protagonist 35-year-old Natasha (Natalia Pavlenkova), who we immediately learn still lives with her wholly religious mother, awakes one morning to discover that she has grown a fleshy rat-like tail that stretches from her lower back right down to her knees.
Although not massively troubled by her appendage, constant speculation and rumours of “the demon with the tail” push Natasha to enquire about amputation at the local hospital, where she attracts the attention of younger doctor Petya (Dmitri Groshev). Following this encounter, Petya ensures that Natasha — who is his senior — embraces her originality in all aspects of her being, finding her experimenting with a new hair cut, clothing, eccentric lingerie, and alcoholism for the first time. But, just as the film bio detailed, there are serious consequences of standing out from the crowd.
Pavlenkova’s performance is wonderful in many ways: it is easy to empathise with her, root for her, and relate to her because she has many characteristics found in a protagonist of a coming-of-age kind of movie. Her relationship with her mother is a reflection of the societal strains of the time where religion took precedent in Putin’s Russia. She talks to her adult daughter like one would address a petulant teenager, insisting on having input into her whereabouts, health, relationships, and — most importantly — her religious beliefs. Her mother’s ignorance is evident in the way she fails to notice Natasha’s tail despite living with her, proceeding to warn her of the “girl with the Devil’s mark” who is, none other than, her daughter. This offers insight into the judgemental characterisation of the mother, not dissimilar from the rest of society, which stands in stark contrast to Natasha’s.
Natasha constantly seeks to escape everyday reality, finding solace in the local zoo where she illegally feeds the animals. When handsome Petya emerges onto the scene he appears to be a vessel for her escapism that can follow her around – teaching her how to have fun, relax, and express herself, despite being fully aware of her medical conditions. Playing out what appears to be his first love as well as her’s, it most definitely feels allegorical of a popular teen feature film.
The plot is strong, though, plagued by religious doubt. It feels like Natasha and Dmitri’s relationship would blossom quite well without any religious pressure or looming expectations of how women ought to exist in society. There is a striking scene where Natasha’s work colleagues — who have senselessly bullied her in the workplace — mortify her in a work meeting for her clothing choices; a far more casual outfit than apparently expected for a women of her age. They brand her a “prostitute”, though, she remains resilient in her ways.
Technically speaking, music is not used to manipulate an emotional response in this film. There are two scenes whereby music features in the background of dialogue, notably so when alcohol is being consumed and Natasha participates in a euphoric dance scene on a night out. Much of the audio emphasis is placed upon hilarity and the sarcastic remarks exchanged by the couple, which makes the silence even more awkward and builds a high degree of tension. Tension is an important feature of the film and is reflected in other ways, such as the unsettled nature of the animals at the zoo during stages of turmoil in Natasha’s life.
The important thing to note about Zoology is that viewers will not solely recall Natasha’s tail as being the most important thing in this story. Oddly enough, her new lease of life as a result of finding a friend who she is accepted by, and with whom she shares common ground, is a lovely message that viewers will take away from the film.