TIFF Review: Core of the World
Core of the World begins with Egor being called urgently to provide medical attention — one of the beloved family dogs has been mauled while out on a walk, and she is in very bad shape. Egor brings his vet kit and tends to the dog as gently and efficiently as possible, but she seems to have at least one paralyzed limb and is unlikely to make a full recovery. Egor’s employer, the father figure of the piece, suggests that the dog be put to sleep, believing it to be kinder than maintaining the dog’s life, but Egor insists that he will provide the medical care and from then on out, the dog sleeps in his cabin with him.
Core of the World is an exploration of the desire to belong, to feel as though you are part of a family. Egor is a man with vet training who works on a Russian family-run farm that breeds foxes, and his role on the farm is a tenuous one. He’s caught in an amorphous position that exists between employee, friend, and family member, which is particularly difficult for him, given his clear longing to belong to a pack (shown literally at one point in the film where, after a fight with his boss, he runs away and then returns but chooses to sleep in the animal pen curled up with dogs rather than go to his cabin alone.)
The use of animals in this film is one of the most impressive elements of the piece. There’s that old adage about never working with animals (they’re arguably more difficult to direct than your average actor), but director Natalia Meshchaninova seems to revel in filling her shots with as many animals as possible. Rather than attempting to get the animals to conform to her vision of various scenes, she lets shots lingers on the animals and allows them to simply exist on camera. They bring a tremendous amount of life to the otherwise fairly desolate Russian landscape, and inform the personality of the main character through his interactions with them.
The themes of family and belonging are strong and work well within the film. There is a sense of surrealism that pervades Core of the World which is fitting for the desolate Russian landscape, but makes certain elements of the film ambigious when it might be better for the story if they were more definitive. In particular there is a key scene fairly late on in the film that should be essential to the narrative but is filmed in a way that the audience isn’t quite sure if it actually happened or not.
In addition, the inclusion of the encroaching eco-terrorists feels a bit muddled. Their role in the film isn’t clearly defined until fairly late in the film and they appear so sporadically that we aren’t as interested in them or their actions as we might otherwise have been. If they had been used more intentionally, perhaps if Egor had established more of a relationship with them, their role could have furthered the conflict between human intimacy and animalistic pack loyalty that seems the be prevalent throughout the film.
Core of the World features a frosty color palette that evokes feelings of isolation and strong performance especially from its lead actor, Stepan Devonin, who is relied upon to carry most of the film. But it lacks a narrative cohesion to tie together all of the themes that Meshchaninova introduces, resulting in a production that is somewhat less than the sum of its parts.