Nanook (Mikhail Aprosimov) and Sedna (Feodosia Ivanova) live an isolated existence in the frigid far north. But, their traditional life of hunting and fishing is in danger as the spring thaw arrives earlier and earlier and the once bountiful game is fast disappearing in “Aga.”
Sophomore Bulgarian director Milko Lazarov, co-scripting with Simeon Ventsislavov, journeys far away from his native land with his minimalist cast and crew and tells a simple, yet timely, story of traditional life and its disappearance and the climate change that is the major cause for its vanishing. Foremost, though, it is about Nanook and Sedna and how the two battle the elements, isolation and longing for the company of their long-estranged daughter, the titular Aga.
This is a tale of two people living above the Arctic Circle eking out a sparse existence in a hostile and frigid land and has little by way of dialog or story exposition. The only break and diversion from their harsh routine comes in the form of their far off neighbor, Chena (Sergei Egorov), who drops by with news of Aga, sparking the couple’s strong feelings for the loss of their daughter once again.
This slow-moving, meditative study of a life not known, at least to me, is as mesmerizing as the vast white tundra that cinematographer Kaloyan Bozhilov captures with all of its stark beauty. The immensity of the landscape that has nothing to see except for snow for mile upon mile gave me a feeling of agoraphobia in its endless isolation.
The slice of life story has the look and feel of a documentary work and, as it immersed me in Nanook and Sedna’s daily struggle, I felt I was living it with them. I give it a B+.
In the uppermost regions of Siberia, two aging Inuits, Nanook (Mikhail Aprosimov) and Sedna (Feodosia Ivanova), are struggling more than usual in the harsh conditions of Yakutsia. The former reindeer herders now rarely see the animals and subsist on fish from ice holes and the occasional trapped animal. There is a mystical connection between those animal deaths and the fateful black patch of skin on Sedna’s abdomen but it is a broken familial connection which haunts her, the one with their daughter, “Ága.”
Cowriter (with Simeon Ventsislavov)/director Milko Lazarov spins a mysterious, stunning, melancholy tale about a disappearing way of life, one being corrupted by humankind’s progression. That it also encompasses a moving portrait of a loving, time-tested marriage is a testimony to Lazarov’s work with his Russian actors (the Bulgarian director communicated with them in English). Cinematographer Kaloyan Bozhilov mostly employs a static camera to capture the intimacy of life inside a yurt and the stunning widescreen vistas of the tundra, Lazarov’s symbolic circle imagery appearing organically throughout.
After Nanook returns with his faithful dog and sled, he and his wife share a simple meal of boiled fish, sipping the liquid used to cook it from steaming cups. Nanook notes that he hasn’t caught anything in four days and will check his traps tomorrow. Sedna gently reminds him that he checked them the day before.
Lazarov tells his tale slowly, teasing out details as we watch these two, whose affection for each other is palpable, through everyday chores like repairing a net. Sedna asks to accompany Nanook when he goes out to his traps because she loves the permanency of three large rocks that remind her of parents and their child, but she stands alone as he sleds off. It is only while he is away that we witness her affliction and her pain. Later, the silence is broken by the sound of a motor as Chena (Sergei Egorov) arrives on a snowmobile bearing gifts of tobacco and a radio along with news of Ága (‘she shouldn’t have done what she did,’ he says, his meaning only known to her parents). Nanook asks if he’s still drinking, then laughs heartily upon learning Chena’s new teeth are manmade. When the young man leaves, his snowmobile deposits a round, black blotch upon the snow. Listening to Mahler’s Fifth Symphony, Nanook marvels that music travels through the air and ponders the suffering he hears within it. Sedna begins to push for forgiving their daughter and making the long journey to the diamond mine where she now works.
But it will only be Nanook who makes the long journey, hitch hiking with a truck driver (Afanasiy Kylaev) who jolts Nanook awake when he hits a reindeer. Nanook says little, but he does share Sedna’s dream of a polar bear that turns into a young man who takes her to his home in a hole in the ground where all the sky’s stars have fallen. Upon his arrival, all he has to do is stand there,
Ága (Galina Tikhonova), intuiting everything, responding with a mournful wail. Lazarov’s camera floats upward, revealing the vast hole in the earth. “Ága” goes to the ends of the earth to reveal global truths.
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