Unclenching the Fists review – claustrophobic drama full of trauma and tenderness
A quietly phenomenal performance by Milana Aguzarova as a young woman trying to break free from the unsettling relationships within her stifling family
Like her partner Kantemir Balagov’s 2019 film Beanpole, there’s an uncanny claustrophobic charge to Kira Kovalenko’s family drama, though it finally exhales an equally powerful sigh of self-redemption. Milana Aguzarova stars as Ada, a young woman in a North Ossetian mining town trapped by her ailing and possessive father Zaur (Alik Karaev). He guards the only front door key, letting her and her siblings out when he chooses, and refuses to let her have an operation to correct injuries sustained during a school hostage-taking that mean she has to wear an incontinence nappy.
Ada’s brother Akim (Soslan Khugaev) comes home from the city of Rostov and seems to have the self-possession and moral compass Zaur does not. He promises to get her the treatment she needs – and a shot at romance with local chancer Tamik (Arsen Khetagurov), who has been hovering. But there’s an unsettling ambivalence to his help, expressed in their fraught confrontations and intense embraces; an incestuous undertone that younger brother Dakko (Khetag Bibilov), who tries to climb into Ada’s bed like a small child, is also subject to.
It’s tempting – especially with the apparent reference to the Beslan school siege – to see the film as some kind of allegory for patriarchal and poisoned Russian society, but that underestimates its strong emotional fidelity to its characters on their own terms. They’re continually cuddling, tussling, grappling – and Kovalenko stays in close proximity all the better to make us feel this centripetal pressure Ada wants to flee. This in-your-face physicality has echoes of Russian classic Come and See. But here it’s offset with black humour, as when Zaur, trying to return Ada’s passport, has a seizure that means he literally can’t let go of her.
Aguzarova is quietly phenomenal, never more so than in the sex scene where, holding her curled-up hands away from Tamik’s body, she manages to be coy, conflicted, detached, expectant and amused all at once. Like the rest of this touching film, it’s comfortable with letting trauma and tenderness coexist.