Reviewed by: Emma Slawinski

You might be fooled at first that this is a coming-of-age film, but very quickly Cruelty starts to look more like a cross between Thelma And Louise and The Last Seduction, shot through with black Russian humour.

Vika (Anna Begunova) is in her mid-teens, growing up in a decrepit Moscow tower block. Mum is strapped for cash, harassed and exhausted, the house is falling to pieces and her little sister is goody-two-shoes swot. Vika is convinced that her mother’s lot will not be her own; she may have dropped out of school but she can think on her feet and she’s not averse to a bit of scheming to lift herself out of the gutter.

At the start of the film, the highest place she can get is the top of her building, where, armed with a camera (nicked from a cheating boyfriend as payback), she starts pointing and shooting whatever she fancies. Pretty soon her zoom lens is homing in on the other half: well-to-do muscovites in the facing tower-block. When she captures a woman having an affair with a married man, she has an idea. Her first pay packet is going to come from blackmail.

Vika may be ingenious but she’s not quite there yet - her plan backfires when it almost gets her raped by thugs hired by a very pissed off adulterer. But it also leads her to meet the ‘other woman’, a ditsy, hapless lawyer named Zoya (Renata Litvinova), who she persuades to take revenge on her lover.

Zoya is at first reluctant, but Vika is persuasive and undeterred, and soon the two of them are running rampage across Moscow and the provinces, avenging angels of women scorned everywhere. Gradually the two develop a friendship of sorts, as they are forced into a renegade existence.

The actresses perform a wonderful counterpoint act. Vika is sullen, unpredictable and totally wild; Zoya just wants the good life. She has a career and money and now needs a man and a family - the icing on her cake. Pliable and weak-willed, she’s also incredibly lonely, and Vika’s companionship gradually brings out a mothering instinct in her.

Utterly fanciful in its twists and turns, and neglectful, perhaps purposely, of its male characters, Cruelty nevertheless clearly has lofty ambitions of poignant social commentary and close observation of two very engaging and believable personalities. Because of it’s fantastic element, it’s hard to take this as a provocative social drama though; where it really excels is in drawing two extraordinary performances from Begunova and Litvinova, the latter in particular, as she begins to reflect on her failings and attempts to retake some control over her destiny and find some meaning in her life.

It is ultimately a very pessimistic film, which examines the difficulty women face in trying to achieve everything this and the last century have promised them: independence, a career, a partner and a family.

Engrossing and fresh in its approach, Cruelty nimbly skirts around what could have been a predictable scenario, with witty and acerbic dialogue and well-judged photography. In the end it’s not the final twist that matters (you’ll probably get there before the movie does); it’s all about the skill with which Lyubakova hedges our sympathies and sets up our reaction to the finale.

Reviewed on: 04 Oct 2008
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The worlds of a precocious teenager and a businesswoman collide after an affair is caught on camera.

Director: Marina Lyubakova

Writer: Marina Lyubakova, Denis Rodimin

Starring: Renata Litvinova, Anna Begunova, Yevgeni Serov, Aleksei Frandetti, Olga Onishchenko, Aleksandra Astakhova, Stanislav Belyayev, Nikita Yemshanov

Year: 2007

Runtime: 89 minutes

Country: Russia


Russian 2008

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