November 20, 2003

Cornell Cinema

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Lilya 4-Ever is not a film you can easily forget. Raw and disturbing, the movie’s power is its realism. This isn’t a fantastical concoction birthed from the imagination, nor is it a melodramatic exaggeration. Directed and written by Lukas Moodysson, Lilya has the feel of a documentary, and it is this connotation of objectivity that makes the film so honest.

The eponymous Lilya (Oksana Akinshina) is sixteen and an avid reader of fashion magazines. Amused and delighted, she tells a friend that she shares Britney Spears’s birthday. She enjoys McDonald’s with the same enthusiasm as cigarettes, the latter a commodity that she cannot live without. Seemingly normal and mundane in its set-up, Lilya’s life is actually a far cry from our own. Early on in the movie, Lilya’s mother moves to America with a new boyfriend, leaving Lilya to fend for herself in their lower class Russian neighborhood, a bleak terrain of austere high rises and gloomy skies. Lilya is occasionally joined by Volodya (Artyom Bogucharsky), a younger boy kicked out by his own father, who shoots hoops with a tin can and whose idea of heaven is a place where he can play basketball better than Michael Jordon.

Life is hard as well as demanding, and Lilya, still in school and without financial assistance, soon turns to desperate measures for survival. This last resort means a life of prostitution. Shunned by former friends and essentially a social outcast, it is amazing that Lilya still retains hope for the future. Hope does come in the form of Andrei (Pavel Ponomarvov), a young man who charms her with PG-rated affection and ice cream cones. He promises a better life in Sweden and trustingly, Lilya agrees, seeing it as her only chance to escape. Volodya is doubtful of Andrei’s intentions, and his fears are confirmed when Lilya is forced into a life of slave prostitution upon arriving in Sweden.

Direct and forcefully blunt in its exposition, the story is shocking because even though Lilya exists in a world apart from ours, her life upon closer inspection is not really that dissimilar from our own. Dancing to loud music, getting high with friends, eating junk food, these are all manifestations of a disarming normalcy that we can relate to. To see a girl, not much younger than us, go from the normal confines of teenage life to vicious savagery makes an alarmingly potent statement.

Moodysson’s film is an intimate affair, and with the aid of his hand-held camera, we are given a glimpse of life as only Lilya can see it. A majority of the movie plays out in a passive tone, reflecting the daily drudgery that is life for the characters. The submissive atmosphere also makes the occasional emotional declaration that much more pronounced and meaningful. Realistic in composition and content, Lilya sheds light on real world atrocities without sacrificing ideals for entertainment value. There are no meaningful monologues or insightful observations here. Moodysson’s script is not ostentatious but rather effective in its colloquial mundanity.

Emphasizing the hopeless bind of Lilya’s existence, Moodysson packs the film with powerful imagery. The dilapidated high rises of Lilya’s home create a cold wasteland that reflects the area’s lack of vibrancy with an all-consuming shade of gray. This is the dark side of industrialization and urbanization. We see the glitzy, garish trappings of modern life when Andrei woos Lilya with a day at the amusement park. This same modernity, however, provides the means for Lilya’s later torment.

Like most stories of suffering, Lilya will provoke reflection because it sheds light on contemporary atrocities a bit too close to home. No light-hearted affair, the film is perhaps challenging to accept for those of us used to the guarantee of film clich