A lonely, dowdy, middle-aged woman lives in a small seaside village in rural Russia. She has no friends, her coworkers are excessively cruel, and she lives with her religious and superstitious mother. Life for her, in a word, is depressing. Then she grows a tail. A large, long, fleshy rat-like tail.
Zoology, the second film from writer director Ivan I. Tverdovsky, is in search of a metaphor. Its fable-like structure and the fact that it's a movie about a woman growing a flipping tail makes us search for allegory, to find some meaning in its story. But the film never quite settles on one, muddling its impact.
Natasha (Natalia Pavlenkova) is in her mid-fifties. She works as a zoo administrator where she’s hated by her coworkers (they make nasty comments about her very loudly while she’s sitting on the other side of the room and play mean-spirited pranks on her regularly). She spends her free time feeding and talking to the zoo animals and caring for her mother. When she grows a tail, it just seems like one more miserable thing she has to endure.
She visits a doctor who barely looks at the tail before sending her off to get an x-ray. After a long wait, she gets her x-rays and is sent to wait some more on a surgeon. He takes one look at the x-rays, declares them to be unclear, and orders her back to the x-ray machine. Rinse, repeat, and she’s no more clear on why this tail has appeared nor what can be done about it.
At this point, I was reminded of The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, a pitch-black comedy from Romania about a man who literally dies from being tossed to and fro in the Byzantine labyrinth of healthcare bureaucracy. For a moment, Zoology works as an acute satire of Russian red tape. But then the cute x-ray technician takes her out for drinks and they create a relationship, giving Natasha a brief interlude of happiness. From there, the film seems as if it's going to be about letting your freak flag fly. Natasha has found someone who likes her despite her oddity. But then she completely shuts him down after finding him being a little too turned on and fetishizing her extra appendage.
Rumors spread across the town about a witch roaming their village who has a tail and is casting curses at their neighbors. Perhaps the film is about Russia’s rural villages' strong belief in the supernatural over science and hard facts. But that breaks down as soon as she’s in the hospital, dealing with doctors in the hallowed halls of science, as they are no help either. It's not that every film needs some grand statement or strong allegory in which to draw a straight line to some higher meaning. But when you’ve movie’s about a grown woman with a long tail then one really does need a consistent metaphor to draw from it.
None of the film's problems lie with Natalia Paavlenkova. She is wonderful as Natasha. She carries all the nastiness of this life with a resigned weariness and delights in what little joy she is allowed. I just wish the film had given her a little more to connect to.
The Blu-ray from Arrow Academy looks quite beautiful. The cinematography invokes a nicely cool palette, turning the seaside village into a drab, almost lifeless place. The video looks clear and crisp. Audio. likewise, sounds good. It's a talkative film with only a few moments where the soundtrack gets loud. The language is Russian so I didn’t understand what I heard but I could always hear the dialogue. The background effects, especially those of the zoo animals and noises come is clean as well.
Extras include an interview with film historian Peter Hames and a nice interview with the actor who plays the X-ray doctor.
Despite its flaws, Zoology is a fascinating, highly watchable film.