THE LIGHTEST DARKNESS (Samaya svetlaya tma, Russia, 2019)

 Greetings again from the darkness. In the movie world, good things rarely happen on a train. In fact, whether it’s the train whistle, the train depot, or the passenger compartment, it’s a warning to viewers that this journey is troubled. So brace yourself. This may be the first feature film for Russian writer-director Diana Galimzyanova (known for video and documentary shorts), but her visual flair and nods to cinematic history are evident and welcome.

It’s billed as the first female directed Russian noir, and it’s clear Ms. Galimzyanova offers up a tip of the cap to Alfred Hitchcock (and others) in this homage to 1940’s Film Noir. Filmed in stark black and white for dramatic effect, the film features a very interesting story structure. Events move forward for the characters on the train, but their individual backstories are revealed in reverse chronological order via flashbacks and recollections. It’s both linear and reverse linear … requiring the viewer to pay attention and keep up!

So, who are these characters? We have Ruslan, the OCD private detective played by Rashid Aitouganov. The self-described “Crime Solver” has his frustrations at being unable to solve a case playing out with him compulsively wiping his hands. Next we have arrogant and judgmental concert pianist Elina played by Marina Voytuk. Elina boasts that her face is recognizable from the marketing posters for her concerts. Lastly we meet screenwriter Arina, played by Irina Gevorgyan. Arina claims she is researching for her computer game being written from the perspective of the murderer.

What murderer you ask? Well it turns out there is a serial killer nicknamed The Fruiterer, who is responsible for 6 murders over the last 6 months – all on the same train route that our 3 characters find themselves on. The nickname stems from the fresh strawberry the killer leaves by each body. If you enjoy the armchair detective work that goes along with murder mysteries, you’ll get a real kick out of this. Processing the interaction between the characters on the train, and blending in the details we pick up from the flashbacks leaves us filtering out what matters and what doesn’t. During the flashbacks we meet an unconventional therapist name Izolda (Kolya Neukolin) who seems to have a strange power over clients. Izolda is a key character, and also entertaining are the two knockout train conductors who have quite the side gig going on this route they refer to as “murder express.”

The opening of the film shows us a suitcase being packed with instruments of destruction. As with most mysteries, each clue must be taken with a grain of salt. Strangers, suitcases, secrets and strawberries all play a part in keeping us off balance. The film works thanks to the psychological uncertainty as we attempt to assess each character and what each tidbit means. When one of the characters says, “I can’t stand to talk to grieving people. They are so self-absorbed”, we understand each of these people has their flaws, but no one jumps out as the obvious killer.

The black and white photography, harsh lighting with shadows, and story structure add elements to the suspense and the surreal tone of the film. The camera angles and shots via mirrors, as well as the disconcerting score (often harpsichord) add intrigue to the bounty of clues and fake clues. It’s a fun movie to watch and a challenge to try and solve ahead of the reveal. For fans of murder mysteries and/or Film Noir, it’s a train ride worth taking.

watch the trailer:

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