Midway through his passage toward the auroral vision of Mother and Son (1997) and the epic stunt of Russian Ark (2002), Aleksandr Sokurov fashioned what may be his best, and certainly most concrete, film: The Second Circle (1990), a grim, funereal Kafkaesque episode as crystalline in outline as it is scouring to endure. It's certainly the chilliest, most severe film experience ever set in one cheap Eastern Bloc flat: A young man (first seen huddling on a snowy road seconds before a storm erases him from view) arrives at his father's apartment in some Siberian no-man's-land and finds the old man dead. What's next is the grueling, specific, absurdist trial of obtaining a death certificate, washing the body when there is no water, paying for a funeral service without money, and so on. Sokurov has always split his time between transcendental humanism and power-system excoriation, and here the two impulses fuse, the grieving visuals glowering through the dark farce of Soviet bureaucracy. Read the inimitable surface grain (shot by frequent partner Aleksandr Burov) as sympathy, moral rot, or both. Kino's spiffy edition of the film comes five minutes shy of the original versionsome 15 years later, Sokurov saw opportunities to tighten during restoration and took them. Also released: the filmmaker's great and duly sung Mother and Son, complete with an intro by the man himself.
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