The Second Circle

There are times in criticism when a critic must admit their own biased subjectivity yet force on in a defense of a negative review of a film that’s good (by any more objective standards) or a positive review of a film that’s bad (by any more objective standards). This may be one such instance; I did not enjoy Aleksandr Sokurov’s The Second Circle on any level. I did frequently find much to admire in it, and I’m at a loss to attempt to justify my low rating. I feel it’s a film that had I seen at another time, in a different mood, I could have been emphatically positive towards it. But its austere artistry simply struck me in a mood where I was incapable of meeting the challenge.

Like many such difficult films, the plot is simple: Pyotr Aleksandrov plays an unnamed man (there are no named characters) who has just lost his father. Struck by his isolation and bereavement, Pyotr must take to carrying out the mundane funeral arrangements while attempting to deal with his grief. This is includes getting a friend to help wash and dress his father, talking to a doctor to determine the cause of death and to get a death certificate, and dealing with a funeral arranger who must ask him what kind of service he wants (cheap coffin? Cremation? An orchestra with organ? Without organ? Flowers? A hearse?). Pyotr does this in a world that has seemingly lost all sense of spirituality and who treat death as they would a business transaction.

Director Sokurov, whom some might know for his notorious film Russian Arc which he filmed entirely in one take, shows his penchant for the long take aesthetic even here. The Second Circle plays out in long, quiet static shots with a penetrating silence that seems to speak of the absence of God or anything metaphysical. Those long takes, that modulate between closeness and distance, suggests the paradoxical hyper-sensitivity that’s present when people are dealing with the immediate death of a loved one, but also how unreal or surreal it all seems; as if you’re outside yourself, looking at events as if they were a film or a dream. That hyper-sensitivity can be seen when Pyotr kneels by a sink while professionals embalm his father in the background, but he looks away and takes an unusual notice of his hand.

Besides the long-take aesthetic, Sokurov also shoots the film in monochrome, typically of a sepia hue, which recalls the similar sections of Tarkovsky’s Stalker. Sokurov seems to quote the film directly during a long travelling shot that follows Pyotr with the camera locked on his face in a close-up. But as to where Tarkovsky’s film was concerned with the metaphysical, in journeying into the unknown, Sokurov is concerned about the absence of all those things. The stark monochrome serves to crystallize the conflicts both external and internal, zeroing in on the silences, the awkwardness, the pain, the confusion, and the frustration of dealing with mortality. The lack of color serves as a potent symbol for a world without anything that transcends daily being, and the abject nihilism that death means in such a world.

But as a cinematic experience, Sokurov prevents the viewer from truly being absorbed into the world by his refusal to anchor the loss to a sympathetic character. It’s not that Pyotr isn’t unsympathetic as much as that Sokurov does nothing to endear him to us. It seems that Sokurov merely hopes the concept of loss would be universal enough to provoke us to be moved by and absorbed in his portrayal. Make no mistake, The Second Circle may be one of the most potent portrayals of dealing with death, but the problem is that almost seems to actively prevents us from being moved by it. It’s a film in which we may consciously recognize that that’s what the process is like, but one in which we’re not allowed to intuitively feel what it’s like.

Part of my disinterest and disconnection with the film may be due to my seeing Terence Davies’ Trilogy a few days prior, which is another severe piece of bleak cinema that ends by dealing with death. Personally, I was still reeling from that film when I saw The Second Circle, and I was much too drained to devote my full attention and emotions to it. So I’m really not in a position to give any kind of objective rating or critique. The same reasons I could give to negatively criticize this film for—it’s overt severity, it’s lack of a narrative, dialogue, and sympathetic characters, it’s lumbering, sluggish pacing—are the very elements I’ve praised on other films.

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About Jonathan Henderson
I'm a dedicated aesthete that's been fascinated with the arts since I was in my early teens. At 13 I saw my first foreign film, which ignited my passion for world cinema. I also discovered the enormous world of music out there and fell in love with everything from death metal to classical. My love for literature has especially grown in recent years, and I've taken up writing (and working really hard at) poetry. But over the past 12 years I've probably taken to film criticism more than anything, and seeing Neon Genesis Evangelion reignited my love for the arts (especially film) and took it to an even higher level. Now I write film reviews for two sites, including this one and Cinelogue. I play poker professionally, and while the world of arts and poker don't seem to converge much, I have taken the deductive and inductive logic that poker requires and attempted to apply it to all the arts as well as my criticism in an attempt to get past the jellybean syndrome ("I like blue jellybeans, you don't, and that's all we can say.").

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