Returning from his 2018 FNC-selected Jumpman, Russian auteur Ivan Tverdovsky returns to the Montreal-based festival; only this time around as part of the renowned Les Incontournables program. The Les Incontournables selection is usually reserved for the most prestigious of auteurs; filmmakers who have drafted and toiled masterworks through decades of determination and craft. At only thirty-one years old, it’s safe to say that Tverdovsky will soon become a major voice in new Russian cinema. As for the dignified selection laurel and his latest feature, it’s also clear that Tverdovsky is undeniably talented. Conveying a grueling slow pace to demonstrate the dramatic and emotional after-effects of a terrorist attack, Conference may just be the director’s most harrowing work to date.
Set 17-years after the Moscow theatre hostage crisis — a terrorist attack that resulted in the death of over 170 people — Conference tells the tale of an old woman attempting to host a special memorial service at the Dubrovka Theater, the site of the 2002 attack. A victim of the siege herself, Conference’s melancholic and glacial pacing can oftentimes be a dreary task. However, every patient directing decision is necessary. Grief is eternal, and the only truly effective way to relate to our lead is by putting the viewer in her own shoes. The viewer is constantly drowning in Natalia’s struggle and sorrow throughout the entire film, as she seeks common ground with other victims of this tragedy.
Conference is by no means an easy watch. It’s a dense film that plays almost like a group therapy session. Far from pleasant by any means, the film is shrouded with a cloud of pain and fear. Fear of the future; fear of co-existing with memories of regret, remorse, and redemption. Fear of the past warping with the present; fear of history repeating itself. Fear is what drives Conference to its very edge, where the testimonials of the victims pile up on the film’s essential core-theme of acknowledgment and remembrance. While still very much a work of fiction, Tverdovsky writes and directs his characters with a humanistic Zvyagintsev-esque touch.
A moody and contemplative character study on how grief can overcome identity during the post-traumatic effects of a tragedy, Conference is a heartbreaking piece of contemporary cinema. There are a few drawbacks near its end resolution, where the themes and morals of the film are unnecessarily reiterated. Though it’s the importance and relevance of Tverdovsky’s message that ultimately drives the film forward. A livid-dissection on the anatomy of ignorance and guilt, Conference refuses to forget the actions of our past and instead keeps a steadfast perspective when commenting on the worst attributes of humanity. Tverdovsky refuses to forget the people of our past and urges his audience to look into their own history and contemplate on their individual role in a collective society.
Dir: Ivan Tverdovsky
Scr: Ivan Tverdovsky
Cast: Natalia Pavlenkova, Olga Lapshina, Ksenia Zueva
DOP: Fedor Glazachev
Country: Russia, United Kingdom, Estonia, Italy
Run time: 129 minutes
Conference screened at this year’s Festival Du Nouveau Cinema as part of the Les Incontournables program.