May, 2003, Drama

Directed by:Lukas Moodysson

Starring:Oksana Akinshina, Artyom Bogucharsky, Lyubov Agapova, and Liliya Shinkaryova

Lilya 4-Ever

Good films on painful subjects often touch audiences quite deeply; really good ones simply break your heart. It's been over a year since I've had that experience, (seeing Rain, last year's powerful film from New Zeeland) and now this bleak tale of forced prostitution from Swedish director Lukas Moodysson. It's as barren as the Russian slum in which it's initially set, yet its themes of degradation, suffering and redemption are as beautifully powerful in their impact as Breaking The Waves, to which it bears a certain thematic resemblance. 

Moodysson, who also wrote the screenplay for this movie, emerged as one of Sweden's most gifted young directors (he's 34) in 1970 when his film Together presented a humorous yet insightful look at Scandinavian commune life in the 70's, delivering a far more accurate reflection of the flower-child phenomenon than any film made here in the U.S. Here however, he more closely resembles England's Ken Loach; this movie bristles with anger about the effects of poverty and joblessness in societies that have little to offer their downtrodden citizens and the disproportionate impact that has on the young and vulnerable.

The director takes trafficking in women for the sex trade as his theme; he opens his story somewhere in what was once the Soviet Union by introducing Lilya, just turned 16, and deliriously happy because she, her mother and the latter's boyfriend are about to leave for the United States. Lilya and her mom occupy a dingy apartment in a garbage-strewn neighborhood of devastating blandness, but Lilya's effervescent smile and optimism about the future make it possible for her to ignore her surroundings and remain confident she can overcome any obstacle. When the day of departure arrives however, mother and lover change plans with devastating callousness; soon a disinterested aunt has usurped Lilya's rights to her modest apartment and forced Lilya into a hovel where she faces the challenge of supporting herself and finishing school. Despite these bleak circumstances, Lilya befriends Volodya, a suicidal 13-year old boy from the adjoining apartment block, tossed out on the streets by his violent father.  The two of them begin to skip school, spending their time together sniffing glue and passing time in an abandoned factory in which Lilya's long departed father once worked.

When Andrei, a handsome young Swede, befriends Lilia at a nightclub and subsequently offers her a job and a life with him in Sweden, Lilya jumps at the chance, leaving the distraught and suspicious Volodya behind with the promise she'll send for him as soon as she can find work there for him as well. But Andrei sends Lilya on to Sweden ahead of him using a forged passport; she's met at the airport by Witek, a pimp whose arrangement with Andrei adds yet another statistic to the thousands of young women who've emerged from the detritus of communism into the hellish world of forced sex-for-sale. Lilya's locked in a high-rise apartment in an unnamed Swedish city and forced to endure a series of piggish male customers who never once question the circumstances of the teenager they're violating. Witek compounds Lilya's agony by his bored indifference to the pain he's causing her, at one point absent mindedly patting her on the hip as if to say "there, there, nice doggy”. Prostitution has never looked uglier; the pimp intimidates, the johns dehumanize, the woman pays the price. I can't remember a film that presents pure unadulterated evil as frighteningly as this one does….

Abandoned, betrayed, sexually assaulted and abused; through it all, Lilya exhibits astonishing determination, remaining full of hope but not illusion.  As Lilya, Oksana Akinshina brings the audience a rich and complete heroine whose increasing torment at the hands of the banal, thuggish Witek finally yields her dreadful, if inevitable release. 

This is not a polemic about white slavery, but rather a heartrending story of a young woman who manages to retain her essential goodness through soul-numbing pain.  Although the director introduces a bit of forced symbolism in the final minutes of his story to poor effect, he and his leading lady have created here an amazingly personalized experience for the audience, on a subject usually encountered only in newspaper articles and never with the caustic, devastating effect this haunting film delivers. Lilya 4-Ever presents a character you cannot bear to watch and cannot stop watching; she will linger in the mind long after the movie's end, utterly destroying whatever exotic glamour the sex industry might have retained in the fevered imaginations of male viewers. The exploitation of another human being has rarely been presented with such blistering yet sympathetic despair.

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