Zoology (Zoologiya, 2016) begins in unassuming fashion, the life of Natasha (Natalya Pavlenkova) a dull, looping monotony filled with work and little else. In her mid-50s, still living with her mother (Irina Chipizhenko), with no friends to speak of and working at the local zoo where she is bullied by her colleagues on a daily basis, she seems resigned to living like this: unhappy and unfulfilled. However, a big change is about to turn all of this around – a change that suddenly reveals writer-director Ivan I. Tverdovskiy’s film to be more than just your average drama, as it becomes something wholly, brilliantly inexplicable.
To talk too much about Natasha’s “condition” is to ruin one of the strangest, most uncanny parts of a magnificent film. A fainting spell at work and various aches and pains are at first the only indications we are given of anything wrong with her, a visit to the doctor initially revealing nothing more than his unwillingness to properly diagnose her. Yet it is shortly after this that the actual twist in Tverdovskiy’s tale is revealed, a scene that is all the more shocking to witness as it is treated as something completely ordinary. And suddenly, Zoology becomes a different genre entirely, Tverdovskiy adding intriguing hints of sci-fi and fantasy and turning his film into a bizarre modern fairytale.
However, despite this dramatic change in tone, Zoology is nothing less than realistic, Tverdovskiy keeping these outlandish elements secondary to the actual narrative, which at its heart is a genuinely sweet coming-of-age story. While Natasha’s ailment at first disgusts her, she slowly starts to find that it helps her gain a new lease of life, enabling her to grow in a way she never thought possible. Gone is the quiet lady with her hair tied up and her head kept down, Natasha soon becoming a happy, outgoing person who finds her voice. It is a transformation that is brilliantly summed up by a delightful scene in which she dances and sings to herself in a mirror – a moment that is a joy to watch.
It is Natalya Pavlenkova’s excellent performance that also makes this transition realistic, Pavlenkova easily morphing her quiet, almost mute character into the vivacious woman she later becomes. This is something that is brought further to life by Tverdovskiy’s decision to look at her relationships with those around her, specifically her developing friendship with a young doctor (Dmitriy Groshev). It is heartwarming to see unfold, Pavlenkova and Groshev’s chemistry easy and convincing, the documentary-like camerawork allowing their performances to grow naturally onscreen. That their age difference is never mentioned and is irrelevant to the plot is something that is wonderfully refreshing too, and another element that makes this film unique.
Tverdovskiy often injects the moments they are together with a gentle humour, such as an alcohol-fuelled visit to a lecture and a scene of the two of them happily sledging down a huge concrete structure, Tverdovskiy turning the harsh, cold landscape into something unexpectedly beautiful. He also includes biting satire throughout, particularly in relation to the endless cycle of doctors’ appointments Natasha is made to face, continuously being pushed from one waiting room to the other rather than them curing or helping her. There is humour to be found too in the superstitions of the church and townsfolk, who all seem fuelled by rumour as much as religion. However, it is amongst this satire that a prevailing sense of darkness lingers, something that becomes more noticeable as the film goes on. Tverdovskiy builds a tense atmosphere, hinting at what might be to come right up until a stark, abrupt ending that is surprisingly hard to watch.
While this could have been a wholly different film, such as a disturbing body horror, Tverdovskiy’s subtle touch has instead allowed it to focus on the right issues while keeping an impressive air of realism, all in spite of that bizarre twist. With such an original idea you’d have hoped for the extras on the disc to shed a little more light on how it came about. But although the film is discussed in detail in an interview with actor Dmitriy Groshev and in another with film historian Peter Hames (a strange addition to this Blu-ray disc), we sadly don’t hear from Tverdovskiy himself on the subject, which seems like a massively missed opportunity. Still, Zoology is worth buying just to see the film itself – a strange, yet beautiful film that has to be seen to be believed.