The Lighthouse (Mayak) Review
Dreamlike and intoxicating, the debut feature of Maria Saakyan beautifully creates an interesting paradox steeped in its setting. The Lighthouse (Mayak) barely introduces outside viewers to where it's taking place, establishing a sense of otherworldly confusion at times, but then proceeds to set up this foreign land of mist and war where the sky seems to hold either dense fog or ever-aggressive helicopters. There's a main character, Lena, but she's hardly a guide. The film hovers - over Earth and space, over family and friends who've ingested too much alcohol, and even over a war that threatens without explanation. No cause of the military conflict is related or background on why the helicopters fly above and violence erupts. The characters shown seem to know little more than the audience. We feel almost like animals, sensing danger and reacting but without any further knowledge.
The opening credits are created with a striking use of what appears to be black ink delicately manipulated to form the names of those involved in the production. It's an evocative effect that prepares the viewer for, if anything, a highly unusual attention to visuals. Narrative is given less importance, though a basic plot exists where Lena travels from Russia to her native Armenia in the hope of bringing her grandparents back with her to Moscow so that they can avoid the destruction being created by this war in the Caucasus region. It might not be accurate to state that whether the grandparents agree and go along with Lena is basically irrelevant to the film but there does seem to be minimal emphasis on it. Instead there are frequent returns to nature, to the mist that engulfs the region, and to a shot of birds flying vigorously that's also accompanied by matching sounds on the audio. The soundtrack as a whole complements the moody fugue state that unfolds on screen.
One section of the movie has Lena and some others from her home town, including a man and his younger wife, sitting around a table and drinking heavily. It might be an almost pre-apocalyptic moment or it could simply be a Friday or Saturday night. Lena at one point waves a shotgun around though she doesn't seem to mean much by it. The film has a few of these sorts of vignettes. It's stronger as a result, weaving more mystery and interest by planting seeds which barely grow. The region that serves as the focus of the film looks and feels almost like another planet. It reminded me perhaps of how Solaris straddles that line between future and present, Earth and something else. Tarkovsky seems to be the most popular filmmaking point of reference to The Lighthouse. The similarities are there to touch with the eyes but the brevity of Saakyan's film is at least one obvious separator.
Such a short running time, comparatively, doesn't in any way indicate a sense of lightness or insubstantial aspect to the movie. If the enigmatic aura and slowly probing camera of this type of cinema make people hesitant to explore that's entirely justified, I think. Indeed, this is not my preferred style but always maintaining an open mind can be useful. For instance, strict Tarkovsky comparisons can sometimes do as much damage as good so they are just as effectively set aside as followed. The Lighthouse is its own work, regardless of how beholden it may or may not be to certain influences. The main hope would be to give it a chance and view the film on its individual merits. It really has the potential to do quite a number of things to the viewer, not the least of which being to inspire further education on the area of the world where the film is set.
Second Run DVD brings The Lighthouse (Mayak) to the UK via a region-free PAL disc. It's dual-layered, with a progressive transfer.
Making its debut on home video in the English-speaking world, the film has a highly interesting visual texture to it that at times belies the fact that it dates only to 2006. There's an absence of consistency across the film, presumably by design, and some scenes appear far sharper and more detailed than others. I don't find this to be a problem in any way, just something good to be prepared for prior to lobbing any complaints over the transfer. If the image isn't comparable to the usual expectations for such a recent film, it's almost certainly not the transfer at fault but instead a faithful reflection of the director's intentions. The aspect ratio is 1.78:1, enhanced for widescreen televisions.
Audio plays an enormous role in this film viewing. So many sounds and musical pieces can be found in the Dolby Digital 2.0 track, to the point where it wouldn't be out of place to wish for a more enveloping option. The audio presented here is rather limited, though does a well enough job in introducing what's on the soundtrack. I'd guess that the cinema experience would capture the mood of the film far more than the capabilities in play here. English subtitles are optional for the Russian and Armenian track and white in color.
The classic and modest Second Run menu template has been deviated from for this release and it looks to be a nice refresh. On the disc is director Maria Saakyan's 2003 short film "Farewell" ("Proshchanie") (24:40). It's presented in 1.78:1 but without anamorphic enhancement and also without subtitles. A note in the booklet says that this is per the director's intention and also mentions that there is very little dialogue in the film. "Farewell" is a supremely evocative piece created by Saakyan at the end of her time at the Russian State Institute of Cinematography (VGIK). It's a worthy complement to the feature.
Also included is a 20-page booklet that, I was delighted to discover, has a few different writings in it rather than just a single essay. First is a three-page exchange between the director and someone from Second Run that contains some basic biographical sketching. It's a helpful inclusion on the road to discovering what will surely be a new filmmaker to most who experience this release. A little over three pages of text are occupied by an essay by Vigen Galstyan on The Lighthouse. Another piece concerning the film, this time by Sophie Mayer, runs for six pages. In all, Second Run has put together a pretty generous set of extra features for this film, again proving the label's warm affection for the cinema it shares with the world.