Written by Kantemir Balagov and Aleksandr Terekhov and directed by Balagov, Dylda is inspired by (although not based on) The Unwomanly Face of War by Svetlana Alexievich, an oral history of the experiences of Russian women who fought during World War II. We've seen countless stories (many of them superb) about men who have fought in war, only to find themselves unable to reintegrate into society upon the cessation of combat, but Dylda is the story of two such women. And whilst one has to admire the emotional and ideological sincerity of the filmmakers, and the craft on display (it looks amazing, with the production design some of the best you'll ever see), for me, Dylda was a somewhat disappointing experience, adding up to something quite a bit less than the sum of its (often exceptional) individual parts.
Leningrad, 1945. In the days immediately after the defeat of Nazi Germany, the city is attempting to recover from the longest and most destructive siege in human history. As the film begins, we're introduced to Iya (an astonishing debut by Viktoria Miroshnichenko), a former soldier invalided out of active duty several years prior. Shy, socially awkward, with pale features, white hair, and standing well over six-foot-tall, Iya suffers from a severe case of concussion-induced PTSD that manifests itself as random episodes of total paralysis. A nurse in a hospital for wounded soldiers, Iya lives in a small one-room apartment with her son, Pashka (Timofey Glazkov), until a horrific accident changes everything for her. Meanwhile, Masha (Vasilisa Perelygina, in the film's second exceptional debut performance), who served with Iya, returns to Leningrad unexpectedly. Suffering from her own PTSD, which causes her to be cruel and selfish, Masha is horrified to learn of the accident and begins to push Iya along a path of rectification that could destroy both of them.
Aesthetically, you'd be hard pushed to find fault with Dylda, with Sergey Ivanov's production design especially laudable. The film is mainly confined to the hospital where Iya works, her apartment, and the nearby streets, with each location telling its own story - the hospital is grim and underfinanced, the apartment is modest but homely, and the streets are cold and alienating, the aftereffects of the Siege still very much apparent. Despite everything looking completely authentic, the exteriors weren't shot on location, but were sets built for the film, making it all the more impressive. If you were enamoured with Dante Ferretti's work for Gangs of New York (2002), you'll definitely appreciate Ivanov's work here. Olga Smirnova's costume design is also exceptional, working in tandem with the production design to create an over-all tone of sombreness.
This tone is helped immeasurably by the use of colour - or rather the avoidance of colour. The film's palette is extremely drab, dominated by grey, dirty yellows, some white, and, especially, a sickly green. There are virtually no blues, purples, or reds for much of the film. Indeed, the most colourful moment is literally the very last image, with Balagov bringing together the oft-seen green and the recently introduced red in a thematically fascinating manner.
Balagov and cinematographer Kseniya Sereda often shoot in long takes, affording the audience nowhere to hide from the suffering on screen. One notable example of this is a scene depicting one of the most harrowing and disturbing deaths I've ever seen - a scene which goes on and on and on without a single edit, driving home the abject horror of what we're witnessing. Another example, although not quite as disturbing, is a sex scene (if you can call it that) shot from above, and again in a very long take. Balagov's intention with shots like this is obvious enough - horror and pain shouldn't be sugar-coated but presented in all their unpleasantness.
Thematically, the film is about broken people trying to put themselves back together, much as the city around them is trying to do the same. The fact that the siege was lifted and the Germans defeated means relatively little in the day-to-day lives of those for whom the experience of combat has eaten away a part of their soul. The Leningrad of the film is a place where many of the norms of society have eroded, where any sense of Utilitarianism has become secondary to the mechanics of survival. A good illustration of the condition of the city is found when Iya brings Pasha to the hospital to amuse the soldiers by making animal sounds. However, when one soldier asks him to bark like a dog, he doesn't seem to understand, and another soldier points out, "where would he have seen a dog? They've all been eaten." Very rare is it that we see such an unrelentingly bleak depiction of the utter ruination of war, and the filmmakers must be commended for having the courage of their convictions.
For all its laudable aesthetic elements and thematic complexity, however, I was disappointed with Dylda. I have no problem with bleak stories; in fact, generally speaking, I'm drawn more to bleakness and pessimism regarding the human condition, not just in cinema, but so too in fiction, theatre, poetry, and painting. However, I found the film too long, with it feeling padded in places, especially in the sense that Balagov tends to let scenes run a few beats longer than they need to. The aforementioned death scene is very long, but it works because of the length, affording the audience no respite. Other scenes, however, simply run long without much in the way of thematic justification. On occasion, Balagov can also be far too didactic, overstating emotions and literalising internal conflicts. At the same time, some of the most important plot points come across as contrived. Additional, the film is both front and end-loaded, with the best scenes and most interesting themes coming in the first and last acts. Unfortunately, much of what's in between is unfocused and flabby.
Dylda won Best Director and Best Film in the Un certain regard section at Cannes and it was Russia's entry for Best International Film for the 2020 Academy Awards, and is expected to make the final five nominees. So, I freely admit I'm swimming against the tide in saying I didn't really like it. I can certainly celebrate its craft, its thematic sophistication (that Balagov is only 28 seems almost impossible given the thematic maturity), its acting, and the way it isn't even remotely interested in conforming to prescriptions adopted by more mainstream films. And ultimately, although I didn't especially like Dylda, and was somewhat disappointed by it, I certainly admired the hell out of.