Funny how often driving scenes in movies don't really take you anywhere. They bring characters into two-shot-friendly proximity and provide the semblance of action while dialogue plays out, but what you see out the windshield is sometimes just backdrop. Even many "road movies" are less about where the car is headed, so long as it's moving. Two recent films, My Joy (Kino International DVD) and Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (Cinema Guild DVD and Blu-ray), center on two very different road trips, and along the way they show you something out the window that you'd never see otherwise.
My Joy offers not only an oddly compelling vision of the modern Russian countryside, it also offers Ukrainian writer/director Sergei Loznitsa's take on the Russian soul as it's been shaped by decades of peasant ignorance, repression, and brutality. The film begins with a man's body (his dead body, you find yourself hoping) thrown face-first into a pit a-slosh in runny concrete and then buried by bulldozer. Turns out that's just an amuse bouche, a grabby intro. Our hero, truck driver Georgy (Viktor Nemets, the Slavic Jeremy Renner) seems to have had nothing to do with it. He just wants to get on the road, drop off his load, and get back home. But first he's flagged down by venal cops, then stuck in an endless back-up on a narrow highway, then beset by a mouthy teenage prostitute. He's shaken down, diverted, waylaid, stripped of his cargo, and eventually stripped of speech and his very identity in a Candide-like journey through the checkpoints, washboarded roads, and grotty little villages of contemporary rural Russia.
Early on, an old man who makes himself at home in Georgy's cab, unbidden, heads off any expectation of time-passing chit-chat by scoffing, "Were you really expecting a story?" The same could be said of My Joy, which goes out of its way to wrongfoot anything like a standard plot. Loznitsa's shaggy-dog narrative literally wanders away from Georgy's plight to explore tangential characters and their travails; at one point the camera veers off and meanders around a small-town market for several minutes seemingly just to gawk at the faces. The film even flashes back to the Soviet era here and there, as if taking pains to underline that fear, thievery, greed, petty abuses of power, and random mayhem are as much a part of the Russian landscape as the weeds and snow. All of this adds up in the end, but needless to say, not in a tidy, feel-good fashion. Loznitsa's spartan but surprisingly lively mise-en-scene (there always seems to be someone wandering by in the background, even if just a goat) helps animate this grim portrait of a place still bearing a bootprint on its neck.
Turkish writer/director Nuri Bilge Ceylan's Once Upon a Time in Anatolia bears some surface resemblance to My Joy, and not just because of the beat-up landscape. For nearly two hours, the camera follows a small-town police commissioner (Yilmaz Erdogn) and a small detachment of his officers, a prosecutor (Taner Birsel), and a doctor (Muhammet Uzuner) as they drive around the bleak hinterlands looking for the corpse of a man their prisoner (Firat Tanis, suitably rat-like) has admitted to murdering in a drunken rage. They drive, they small-talk, they bicker, and, as the night deepens, they make fruitless stop after fruitless stop at identically nondescript locations and then drive some more. While My Joy is full of incident, Once Upon a Time in Anatolia for a time seems like a police procedural recast as an endurance test.
But Ceylan soon illustrates that there's a difference between uneventful and subtle. You spend enough time cooped up in this fleet of cruddy sedans with this caravan of characters that you start to develop a certain rapport with them. By the time you arrive at a wordless scene in which the investigators and their suspect are confronted with the humble beauty of a village mayor's young daughter (Cansu Demirci) as she serves tea by lamplight, a scene unlike anything else you'll see onscreen this year, you anticipate that your time is not being wasted. And, indeed, Ceylan has planted enough innocuous-seeming information along the way that the revelations of the final reels unfold with a slyly devastating impact.
Loznitsa's Russian is a grim and absurd place, where anyone with a fellow-feeling thought in his or her head is likely to wind up with it bashed in or shot through. By the time the credits roll, Ceylan's film has revealed itself to be less about a specific country and more about the quiet anguish and clear-eyed kindnesses that living in a harsh and sometimes inexplicable world somehow can't quite bury.