sat 22/06/2024

Blu-ray: The Lighthouse (Mayak) | reviews, news & interviews

Blu-ray: The Lighthouse (Mayak)

Blu-ray: The Lighthouse (Mayak)

Subdued, elegiac meditation on wartime life in the Caucasus

Coming home: Anna Kapaleva in 'The Lighthouse'

Mariya Saakyan’s 2006 debut feature is bookended by grainy footage of what looks like a fire-ravaged diary, the distressed, crumbling scraps of paper torn and charred. The missing pages and unfinished sentences spill over into what follows, Saakyan inviting viewers to fill in the gaps in this haunting, elegiac film.

Mayak (translated as The Lighthouse), is the semi-autobiographical tale of a young woman returning to her war-torn homeland in the early 1990s, attempting to persuade her elderly grandparents to come with her back to Moscow. Saakyan described Mayak as “a personal story”, screenwriter Givi Shavgulidze alluding to the director’s own life experiences, notably her being forced to move from rural Armenia to Moscow at the age of 12 when separatists clashed violently with government forces. We see the battle scars in every frame, Saakyan and her cinematographer Maksim Drozdov placing us in the heart of a village community on its knees, the buildings crumbling and most of the men absent.

Mayak packshotWe first see Lena (Anna Kapaleva) on the train back home, her smart clothes and luminous complexion setting her apart from her fellow passengers. A faint flicker in a window is the lighthouse of the title; Lena finally reaches her home, switches on the light and removes the dust sheets, examining old photographs and switching on her record player. What she’s been doing in Moscow is never revealed, and how quickly she reassimilates back into village life is surprising. This is a place where, despite the fighting, nothing seems to have changed. Swirling fog is a constant (at one point, a subsidiary character asks a child if he’d like to “go and see the mist”). Logs are chopped and fires lit, Saakyan showing us a way of life that presumably hasn’t changed in decades. Only the intermittent radio news broadcasts and a shot of a television set confirm that we’re in the late 20th century.

Vodka-fuelled social gatherings provide light relief, and there’s a haunting soundtrack from Finnish accordionist Kimmo Pohjonen. For a film set during a war, there’s a disarming lack of overt terror, the prevailing mood one of quiet dread. Locals, desperate to flee, crowd the railway station platform, unable to board the troop train that passes through without stopping. Children try to spot dead bodies in a fast-flowing river. We’re awed by the villagers’ resilience, at their dogged attempts to keep calm and carry on while all around them is in ruins. One woman calmly smashes her windows in an attempt to dissuade burglars. Glimpses of helicopters, and some pertinent news footage of refugees just before the close, shock because they stand out so much. Kapaleva’s calm, assured performance is winning.

Second Run’s Blu-ray reissue looks and sounds impressive. Bonus features include Saakyan’s poetic 2003 short film Farewell, and a useful visual essay examining Mayak. The booklet notes are superb and include an interview with Saakyan, who directed two more feature films and an opera before her death from cancer in 2018, aged just 37.


We’re awed by the villagers’ resilience, at their attempts to keep calm and carry on while all around is in ruins


Editor Rating: 
Average: 4 (1 vote)

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