Core of the World (CIFF 2018)

review by Kate Blair

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Core of the World creates a dark and isolating atmosphere that is unique as it is unnerving. The film, which was directed by Natalia Meshchaninova, centers on Egor (Stepan Devonin), a veterinarian living at a remote Russian facility that trains hunting dogs. We learn that Egor had an unhappy childhood. Innocent with an open, honest face, he chases affection, much like the dogs he works with. Early on, Egor rehabilitates a mauled dog that his boss (Dmitriy Podnozov) wants him to put down, so we see Egor has a gentle heart an an affinity for the animals under his care. But like a dog, he is prone to snap, then retreat with his tail between his legs.

The imagery sets the mood for the murky emotional states Core of the World evokes. The disparate buildings that make up the compound are marooned by pools of mud. Throughout the film we see characters making their way through it, the ground sucking at their galoshes under high-beamed safety lights. In other scenes, Egor carries the recovering dog on his shoulders through the coniferous woods, an ethereal image that evokes Meshchaninova’s countryman, Tarkovsky.

The facility is a family operation, and Egor positions himself as an adoptive son. Soon, an attraction blossoms between him and his boss’s daughter, who has a young child of her own. But unforeseen challenges upset the dreary rhythms of the group. The family keeps tame foxes in order to train the dogs, and the poor conditions attract the attention of some local activists. With their livelihood under assault, the family dynamic goes quickly downhill, ending in stark violence the film unfortunately does not resolve.

Core of the World deals in the nuances between pain and love and the mistakes that people make in attempting to connect with one another. In the end, the muddled film fails to reflect on these tensions in a meaningful way. But the muddle somehow still manages to be interesting, and several sequences leave a lasting impression, like the treads of a boot in thick mud.

Screened as a part of the 54th Chicago International Film Festival.