While most of it is filmed in and around the monastery where Sonia/nun Christina resides, the film experiences a radical break when the camera travels with Sonia to her parents, who provide some background and context to Sonia’s existence. Filmmaker Radka Franczak elucidates.
Sonia decided to become a nun after she had asked God directly: “If your plan is for me to be married, show me a husband; if not I will enter the monastery”. Shortly after her entry into the Ivanovo monastery, she became ill and it turned out she was incompatible with its harsh regime. Since then, she leads her somewhat exceptional life, focusing on painting and restoring icons, and on her pets. For Sonia, it is a quest for artistic beauty and perfection, or the possibility for perfection and the sublime that God has instilled in people, but that is so difficult to reach.
Filmmaker Radka Franczak was haunted by Sonia’s search for beauty; this is really the core of the film. Beauty in the icons Sonia paints, and her attempts at perfection, but also beauty in a human life, its vulnerability and fallibility. Sonia talks about her illness, recounting something that sounds like a near-death experience, which forced her to rethink her life as a nun. Hence her atypical monastery life.
In the film we observe Sonia as she goes about her work in and around the monastery, and talks about how she observes the life of normal people. Most of the talking however, is captured in an interview, from which filmmaker Radka Franczak included specific clips using hard cuts. Interviews with both her parents are included in the same vein. This is the first of three central elements in the film.
The second concerns the monastery’s church and its destruction at the end of the Soviet period. Archive footage of the church in ruins at the end of the communist era is presented in a form which suggests a memory of an unnamed lady. We see mainly women clearing away the rubble with their bare hands.
The last part of the film shows Sonia travelling to visit her parents. While she makes music with her dad, who also informs us about the amount and variety of arms and weapons being produced in hometown Izhevsk, her mum contemplates how events in the twentieth century Soviet Union have affected various generations of her family. She also talks about a recurrent dream she has, about losing Sonia as a young girl, over and over again.
The film’s unusual narrative, dominated by the shift in location, from the monastery in Ivanovo to the house of Sonia’s parents in Izhevsk, and its three main elements, the interviews with Sonia and with both her parents, the observational sequences at both locations, and archive footage of the church in ruins, asks for clarification, which filmmaker Radka Franczak, trained as an editor, is happy to give. She explains her editing scheme: “I edited the film in an intuitive way. First I tried a logical approach, using the passing of time as the structure, and going from autumn to winter etc, but that didn’t work. It took the attention away from Sonia while I wanted to stay close to her.”
Radka Franczak was haunted by Sonia’s search for beauty
An example of the intuitive approach is the way Franczak relates the archival footage to the older lady, footage that was recorded years apart. Franczak adds: “I did not think about a time structure anymore but just thought “what can come next?” That is also how Franczak “ended up” in Izhevsk, to visit Sonia’s parents: “With the producer I decided to go there. The film is about Sonia, but I felt something was lacking. I wanted to include more about where this unique, innocent girl was coming from, her background, a brutal place like Izhevsk.” Sonia’s father aptly mentions that luckily Sonia took to religion, rather than drugs.
Franczak also wanted to include an awareness of how politics and history are closely attached to people: “There is a history that surrounds her, and I wanted to show that”. Hence the archive footage, the restoration of demolished icons, and the parents’ stories. Interestingly, there is also the “presence” of Putin in the form of a New Year’s speech on how well Russia is doing, representing, according to Franczak, a contradiction to the poverty of many people we see in the film. Apart from that, it might also suggest the contemporary close connection between Russia’s secular leaders and the Orthodox Church.
Because of the intuitive approach to editing, it took a long time to make the film. Franczak filmed on and off for five years, gathered 60 hours of material, edited, with Jarosław Kamiński, for two years producing some 30-40 versions in the process. “It was a very free way of working. It wasn’t easy but I loved it!”