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SECOND CIRCLE, THE (KRUG VTOROY) (director: Aleksandr Sokurov; screenwriter: Yuri Arabov; cinematographer: Aleksandr Burov; editor: Raisa Lisova; music: O. Nussio; cast: Pyotr Aleksandrov (Son), Nadezhda Rodnova (Undertaker); Runtime: 92; MPAA Rating: NR; Facets; 1990-Russia-in Russian with English subtitles)
“This relentless meditation on the death of one’s father also serves as a metaphor for the spiritual debasement of modern Russia.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Aleksandr Sokurov (“The Stone”/”Whispering Pages”) haunting masterful examination of death and bereavement in his homeland, a country suffering from lack of spiritual values and the ills of bureaucracy. The film’s title refers to the second circle of hell depicted in Dante Alighieri’s The Divine Comedy, Volume I: Inferno.

A young man (Pyotr Aleksandrov) returns on a snowy weekend to visit his elderly retired military father in his Siberian wilderness squalid and tiny home and finds him dead. The son lives in the next town and is not known by the locals. In minute detail Sokurov conveys the loneliness, alienation and horror of living in such harsh inhumane times, as the son tries to honor his father with a decent funeral but is handicapped by the bureaucracy, his lack of funds, and the coldness of the surroundings from the people and the landscape.

Because of the father’s pale skin coloring, it’s determined by the visiting medical technician that the cause of death was cancer. He also explains that he can’t issue a death certificate, remarking “You should have placed him in a hospital. Everything would have been easier then.” The certificate would have to be issued at the outpatient clinic, as the son packs the body in snow and delivers it after the weekend so the doctor can make the death official. With that part of the bureaucratic process done the dutiful son contacts the undertaker (Nadezhda Rodnova), a hostile and coarse woman, who haggles over the itemized cost of the funeral in every detail and when it’s determined the son doesn’t have enough money to pay for the kind of funeral he wanted, the undertaker treats him with an utter lack of respect.

This relentless meditation on the death of one’s father also serves as a metaphor for the spiritual debasement of modern Russia, a country dying from an unknown disease. Sokurov calls it a cancer on the country’s soul. The austere surroundings and sparse storytelling shot with long framing shots and close-ups, allows for an unrelenting assault on the sensibility of the Russian political system and psyche. The young son is the innocent, trying to do what’s right but is faced with obstacles beyond his control. It ends with resignation, as the following epilogue lingers on the screen: “Lucky are the nearest and dearest of ours who died before us.”


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”