‘MS Slavic 7’ movie review: An atavistic nod to letters

Sofia Bohdanowicz and Deragh Campbell’s MS Slavic 7 speaks of ‘objecthood’ of letters. The millennial Canadian protagonist, Audrey (Campbell) is obsessed with the concept, after she discovers a repertoire of letters at Harvard University’s Houghton Library, written by Polish-Canadian poet Zofia Bohdanowiczowa (who we discover is Audrey’s great-grandmother) to another Polish poet, Józef Wittlin, both World War II refugees from Poland to North America. Their correspondence lasted between 1957 and 1964 over 25 letters. Audrey’s insistence that the medium of the written word, the sheer object itself, which travels across oceans, has as much weightage as the content it carries, if not more. The film highlights her fascination with this school of thought by giving these letters a visual pedestal, so much so that the filmmakers provide the letters with their own subtitles, even when no words are being spoken. You can only hear Johann Sebastian Bach’s baroque compositions in the background, lending these scenes an immersive and atavistic texture.

What is amusing, though, is Audrey’s archetypal ‘faux intellectual millennial’ personality, with deadpan looks, in search of meaning and depth to life. She seemingly has a comfortable and sheltered life, as gleaned from the hotel room she checks into and later, a grand family reunion. With an ancestral history of post-war migration, Audrey has not much to complain about, as life stands today, perhaps like many third or fourth generation World War II refugees, who migrated to North America. As she doggedly archives and claims custody of her great-grandmother’s letters, studies and discusses them over pensive, beer-fuelled conversations, we see a quintessential millennial life in the global North today, in search of meaning in a tumultuous familial past. This pursuit for purpose is most evocative in a scene where Audrey has a tiff with her aunt, Ania Bohdanowicz (Elizabeth Rucker), while arguing over the possession of her great grandmother’s literary estate. At first, Ania dismisses Audrey’s obsession as a hobby but as the demand persists, she blurts out, “So are you trying to make a business out of our family history?”. An offended Audrey (perhaps emoting for the first time in the film) shoots back, “Am I a hobbyist or an evil capitalist? I don’t even know what you are accusing me of.” This accusation and confused retaliation speaks volumes about Audrey, and symbolically, the film.

Past continuous: Despite its verbosity, an epistolary approach and a triptych narrative, the film has little to say about post-memory

Past continuous: Despite its verbosity, an epistolary approach and a triptych narrative, the film has little to say about post-memory  

At the core of this film, which had its world premiere at Berlinale Forum last year, is just an unfulfilled young girl, trying to ‘intellectualise’ the world around her. It’s evident in the title, which sounds technical and detached from anything remotely sentimental. We discover that it is merely the nomenclature for the section where you would find those letters at the Harvard library. Despite its verbosity, an epistolary approach, a triptych narrative, and cloaking itself with clean and neat artsy aesthetics, the film has little to say about the past or the idea of post-memory. Perhaps the filmmakers do not intend to, either.

There are mentions of the Holocaust memorial in Berlin (and a rather amusing mugging incident attached to it) and ‘tears of Israel’ in poetry. The concept, on paper, is ambitious and covers a wide historic canvas but the film limits itself to a rather surface approach in what it wants to say. What we are served is an hour-long film, which is meditative, engaging and witty but hollow at the same time — almost as if the film is in search of deeper meaning, much like Audrey.

MS Slavic 7 will stream on Mubi India from June 4

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Printable version | Apr 15, 2021 8:21:17 AM |

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