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The Art of War

Melancholia and the infinite sadness: Meditative Chechnya doc sidesteps the realities of war

Gaining invaluable political cover from both the war in Iraq and the actions of a Chechen extremist minority, the Russian government's brutal military campaign against the oil-rich Caucasian province's separatist insurgency has found an ideological home in Bush's vaguely conceived war on terror. Deliberately paced and suffused with mysticism, Finnish director Pirjo Honkasalo's documentary mood piece The 3 Rooms of Melancholia takes a tripartite look at the consequences of Putin's dirty war for children on both sides of the conflict.

Distanced in more ways than one, the movie opens thousands of miles away on the "fortress island" of Kronstadt, site of a Russian military school for kids as young as nine. The brief second segment takes place in the Chechen capital of Grozny, where a woman named Hadizhat collects the children of dead and dying parents. Some of her orphans appear in the landscape-fixated third section, residents of refugee camps located in the nearby autonomous republic of Ingushetia.

Willfully esoteric, 3 Rooms proceeds in the hushed tones of a guided tour through a medieval cathedral—even the academy's military instructors are surprisingly muted (anyone hoping to see a D.I. go all Lee Ermey on the cadets will leave disappointed). Sparse narration dispassionately sketches the horrific circumstances of the kids' lives (nearly all, cadets and refugees alike, were orphaned by the war). Aside from the stark black-and-white of the middle section, the whole movie's rendered in somber Rembrandt hues. By the nearly wordless final third, dominated by a mysterious religious rite that parallels an earlier academy chapel service (one of many subtle rhymes between segments), the funereal mood has imperceptibly morphed into an animistic trance.

City of lost children: young cadets at the "fortress island" of Kronstadt
photo: First Run/Icarus
City of lost children: young cadets at the "fortress island" of Kronstadt

War is hell, violence begets violence, hatred is passed on to future generations, etc., etc. Each section is more aestheticized than the last, a strategy not without its virtues; one shudders at the thought of this subject—orphaned children in wartime—falling into the wrong hands. Nevertheless 3 Rooms relies excessively on languid shots of kids' blank-slate faces, and despite frequent sidelong references to past atrocities, frustratingly little here grapples with the day-to-day realities of life in Chechnya and the surrounding areas. The most politically resonant moments are context-free bits of nightmare logic: "The oil wells will kill you," one character says; another shot lingers on a sign in a school corridor that reads, "Don't gossip near a phone. A talking head is treasure for a spy"—an injection of Stalin-era paranoia that feels all too timely.

Such poetic asides notwithstanding, Honkasalo's self-consciously high-art approach seems likely, at least for American audiences, to render an already remote conflict even stranger and more exotic. Production on 3 Rooms came to a premature halt in the fall of 2003, when the war began spilling over into Ingushetia, but that sense of danger and chaos is systematically excluded from the finished film. This is the kind of movie that attracts adjectives like "rarefied" and "meditative." It's beautifully shot and was made with undeniable intelligence (and at some physical risk to the filmmakers). Still, is it unfair to ask if meditation is really an adequate response to war? To suggest that the contemplation of natural beauty here is but an escape from the vicissitudes of human history? Given the sheer number of poorly crafted political docs that have sprung up like weeds over the past couple years, the lack of bleeding-heart sentiment and liberal preachiness comes as a relief. But given the current geopolitical stakes, 3 Rooms also feels like a retreat.

 
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