The absurdity of the authoritarian state is given a Brechtian makeover in Numbers, written by Oleg Sentsov in jail and directed under his instructions by Akhtem Seitablaiev. A truly minimalist allegory, its political elements stimulate while the film fails to engage as a dramatic tale.
The story behind Numbers is fascinating. A native of Crimea, Oleg Sentsov was jailed by the Russian authorities for “crimes of a terrorist nature” in 2014. To protest his conditions, he organized a hunger strike to demand his freedom and the freedom of 64 other Ukrainian prisoners. Before engaging on the strike he left the screenplay for Numbers, which was written in 2011. Thankfully the hunger strike ended, leading Sentsov to direct Akhtem Seitablaiev behind prison walls through letters. He was released last September, as part of a prisoner swap, and is likely to continue his work as a humans rights activist as well as a filmmaker.
Numbers is his first work released as a free man. It has ten characters, named from one to ten. They are bound by strange regulations, led by First (Oleksandr Yarema), who clutches a large leather-book with all the rules in them. Every day they eat at the same time, picking up food from a ping-pong table and munching out of bowls while running in a circle. In the evenings, the odds (men) and evens (women) are separated by a rusty fence; leading to dangerous liaisons under the watchful guard of two men wearing black goggles and holding rifles.
The entire film takes place in what could only be described as a hollowed-out sports hall, with entrances on either side and bleachers covered with wooden slats. The artificiality of the purposefully play-like setting helps to stress the artificiality of the rules. Like a Brecht play, we are constantly alienated from seeing these people as real; further stressed by their highly gestural way of acting.
Zero (Viktor Andrienko) is our stand-in for God. He lives on an artificial balcony above all the other numbers. His balcony has the only vestiges of true humanity; patterned wallpaper, a gramophone, and serene painting. He bangs drums to signify thunder and pours from a watering can to signify rain. First argues that he is merely doing Zero’s will, even though he never actually hears from Zero himself. The other numbers start rumbling, including Seventh (Evhen Chernykov), who wonders whether there is more to the world than the arbitrary rules laid down by First and enforced by the silent judges. Things get more complicated when a new baby is born, forcing the members of this strange community to totally reevaluate their belief system.
The film’s style brings to mind Lars Von Trier’s Dogville, which was even more minimalist in conception, using chalk outlines to stand in for houses. But while Dogville found a way to bring out the emotion of its absurdist tale, Numbers feels delivered at a remove. Ultimately, its lack of cutting dialogue, real-world correlative or emotional through-line makes it better appreciated as an academic exercise than a truly engaging work.