*A 2006 U.S. Release*
The opening shot of Russian filmmaker Ilya Khrzhanovskys 4 has been rightfully celebrated: a meticulously composed image, consisting of a quartet of wild dogs resting on a street during a winter night, is suddenly intruded upon by heavy machinery looking to demolish everything in its path, which quite possibly signifies the end of Russias post-Soviet malaise while insinuating the countrys growth towards "re-industrialization." But at what cost and at whose expense are just a couple among numerous fascinating queries showcased by the filmmaker in his unique and groundbreaking debut feature.
In 4, nothing is what it seems, a quandary certainly prevalent at the heart of the films bravura, masterfully-shot 30-minute scene which serves as the centerpiece of the first half. An otherwise empty Moscow bar at way past midnight is livened up by three strangers -- Marina (Marina Vovchenko), Volodia (Sergey Shnurov) and Oleg (Yury Laguta), who had been individually introduced to us earlier -- as they amuse one another with false stories involving their professions, not leaving many stones unturned. Their mostly relaxed, Linklater-esque discussion segues into such topics as secret human cloning projects, Kremlins extracurriculars, Chinas rise, etc. -- all tangentially indicative of Russias "postmodern" turmoil (which Khrzhanovsky attempts to exploit at every turn).
The second half, which primarily focuses on Marina, begins with her physical journey through dilapidated rural landscape, bringing to mind Bla Tarr's Damnation (1988) and Stntang (1994), especially the former due to Khrzhanovsky's emphasis on a rich, industrially ambient sound-design. Her destination turns out to be a Stalker-esque village -- Khrzhanovsky also evoked Solaris  in an earlier sequence shot from a car's dashboard -- teeming with "babushkas," who are in mourning due to the death of Marina's sister Zoya. (At the village, we do however get to witness Marinas two other siblings who appear to be identical-twins.) Before Zoyas death, this godforsaken place was being run from selling dolls made out of masticated bread (the kind Svankmajer would love to own), which she used to mold in a manner to give each one a distinctive trait.
4, for which the Moscow-born Khrzhanovsky worked with radical, controversial Russian scribe Vladimir Sorokin, whose novel "Blue Lard" reportedly featured Khrushchev and Stalin in compromising situations, is part of Russias recent Necrorealist movement, mostly featuring underground works that have been described as sef-consciously inflammatory who feast upon the putrefying corpse of the Soviet state. No wonder that in the film while the old hags are busy belting out a patriotic, Stalin-era number (cant remember if that was before or after they exposed and started playing with their mammary glands), Khrzhanovsky abruptly cuts to Volodia slaving away in a prison with countless others, not long before theyre sent to fight in a war in order to "atone for their sins." Also, the doll factorys dispirited young head (and Zoyas boyfriend) is usually seen walking around in a drunken haze, constantly cursing "metal scum" for their putrid, marginalized existence. (4, an official Russian production, was banned upon its initial release in Russia; the authorities demanded major cuts to the film.)
The numerological significance of the title is never quite made explicit by Khrzhanovsky, though he constantly brings it to attention both visually and narratively. "It was never sacred in any culture's history Four!," one of his characters once muses, ultimately referring to the first Russian incubator to successfully propagate "doubles." "Its the number the world rests on." But that never takes away from the directors visionary stylistic tics, encompassing a range usually only witnessed in masterworks.
Winner of the "Tiger" (Best Film) and "The Golden Cactus" (Theo van Gogh's in-memorium for maverick filmmakers) awards at the 2005 Rotterdam Film Festival, 4 is a challenging and uncompromising effort, but unlike, for example, Carlos Reygadas Battle in Heaven (2005), a film 4 shares certain aesthetical traits with, it respects its audience which eventually becomes an inviting aspect to say the least. Indeed, and very much like an Apichatpong Weerasethakul parable, Khrzhanovskys film is partially willing to reveal its taxonomies upon being asked the pertinent questions. No wonder the experience is at once exhilarating and exhausting, which is what cinema should more often strive to provide.
*4 premiered at the 2005 Rotterdam Film Festival. The film was released in the U.S. earlier this year by Leisure Time Features.
*Available on DVD in the U.K. (ICA). The Russian DVD of the film also features English subs.