Sparse and visually poetic, Milko Lazarov’s Ága immerses us in the spartan life of elderly Yakut reindeer herders, Nanook (Mikhail Aprosimov) and Sedna (Feodosia Ivanova), living a harsh and contented life in the Siberian tundra.
Life is a repetition of almost wordless days as they go about the necessary tasks of survival with quiet companionship. Nanook drills through the ice to fish, brings home blocks of ice and makes rudimentary traps to catch foxes. Sedna cooks, tends to the yurt that is their home and makes clothes from the skins and furs.
When son Chena (Sergei Egorov) visits on his snowmobile, the complexities of the outside world briefly intrude on their simple life. A daughter, Ága (Galina Tikhonova), has moved away and works in a diamond mine. In some way she has let them down and Nanook refuses to forgive her, despite Sedna’s quiet requests.
At first the pace of the film seems too slow. The camera lingers on the monochromatic sparseness of the tundra, often static as the characters move in and out of frame. Soon though, the quiet pace seeps into your soul and you feel immersed in a life that is uncomplicated and certain of purpose.
A story steadily weaves its way through, about Ága and family. As Nanook says, “Legs are like family; one can’t do without the other,” and this is shown in Nanook and Sedna’s interdependence and also their drive to reconnect with their daughter. Below this overt narrative is a subtler one about the changing climate and the slow destruction of traditional indigenous ways of life.
Lazarov made an odd choice toward the end of the film that initially grated. After an hour or more of almost silent drama, he introduces a quintessentially emotive music score, the force of the music increasing to a crescendo that reverberates over the closing credits. It left me a little confounded and out of kilter with the careful crafting of the film but then I remembered a scene halfway through where Chena brings them a radio and it made sense.
I left the cinema profoundly moved and pondering what is being lost from our world every day in the pursuit of progress.
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