The Russian director Kira Kovalenko’s moody, miserablist drama “Unclenching the Fists” captures a turning point in the life of Ada (Milana Aguzarova), a young woman trapped under her father’s thumb.
The chilly mountain region where they reside is in a mining town in North Ossetia, a Russian republic in the North Caucasus, an area still raw with the memories of civil warfare and extremist violence.
Zaur (Alik Karaev) is a possessive and domineering single parent, forbidding Ada from wearing perfume should it attract male attention, and — most alarmingly — locking his daughter and youngest son into their shared apartment in the evenings, only allowing them to exit when he sees fit. Distrustful of institutions, Zaur refuses to allow Ada to get the treatment she needs for injuries sustained during a terrorist attack, forcing the young woman to wear adult diapers.
Ada rebels as best she can, meeting up with her dimwitted pseudo-boyfriend, Tamik (Arsen Khetagurov), between shifts at a local grocery store. An opportunity for liberation emerges when her big brother Akim (Soslan Khugaev), who left to find work in a city, pays the family a visit.
With its steely color palette and brooding, tight-lipped performances, the film often trades in art-house cinema clichés — and its relentless atmosphere of doom and gloom reduces the characters to mere victims of implacable forces. Ada’s psychological tumult is captured in intimate close-ups and fluttering camera movements, while the absence of a score complements the film’s uneasy mood of pent-up rage and stifling despair.
That said, a final act pivot renders this fraught family portrait into something much gentler and empathetic than the first half of the film would suggest, even if Ada’s quest for freedom ultimately feels more impossible than ever.
Unclenching the Fists
Not rated. In Ossetian, with subtitles. Running time: 1 hour 37 minutes. Watch on Mubi.