One Man Dies a Million Times has a Tarkovskian touch and sensibility. Although it lacks the master’s effectiveness and trance, the film is a rewarding watch.
There’s something very fascinating and compelling about Andrei Tarkovsky’s films and their respective viewing experiences. He’s a master at the craft – a one-of-a-kind filmmaker who has crafted several masterpieces, such as Solaris (1972), Mirror (1975), and The Sacrifice (1986). However, his films cause people to fall asleep, myself included. I have talked to plenty of people and researched others’ experiences, and I was not alone in this situation, but that doesn’t diminish the overall product. I wouldn’t consider this a deterioration of the respective film in question. On the contrary, it adds to the experience – it’s part of the production and atmosphere built up by Tarkovsky himself. This situation has been described as a station in between the long journeys that are his pictures. During these stations, one absorbs them and ponders each’s significance, but in a tranquil state. The images of the riverbanks, the drifting of the mist, or shots of the green-filled woods stay in your mind like transitions of a chapter.
Somehow, this experience is also translated into Jessica Oreck’s latest feature, One Man Dies a Million Times – a film that uses the master as inspiration to explore the preoccupations with the intertwining of nature and memory. Although it is not to the extent of Tarkovsky’s magisterial talents and oeuvre, Oreck captures beautiful images through a captivating lens that reflects on both the past and future. The film is shot beautifully by Sean Price Williams in crisp black-and-white, with the only speck of color being when something is of the color red – like fire, flares, and blood. One Man Dies a Million Times is presented as a true story, albeit set in an unspecified future. No year or time-lapse is mentioned; the only thing the audience knows is that it is years after our current times but not too far away from its grasp. It’s a rumination, or retelling of some sort, of the wounding and harrowing history of the siege of Leningrad during World War II.
The various scenes presented are dystopian visions of a “forthcoming” future, where war rages on in St. Petersburg – leading to the townsfolk facing mass starvation. In between this history updating, there’s a tragic love story amidst war. Two seed bank workers, Alyssa (Alyssa Lozovskaya) and Maksim (Maksim Blinov), contend with the aftermaths and terrors of war as they fight for survival and imminent famine. In addition, the two lovers must find a way to protect the contents of the world’s most crucial seed bank. If the seed bank goes, it might probably terminate their chances of survival. Despite their starvation, their fondness for each other blossoms. Their relationship is like a juxtaposition of what’s happening in the background. As things worsen, their bond never flounders; they remain tight because that’s the only thing keeping them sane and optimistic. Their love for each other is showcased through scenes ranging from tragic to very lovely – from holding on to each other as they hear various explosions destroying the city to having a long walk in the garden.
And most of these scenes focus on facial expressions primarily, rather than shower them in dialogue. Oreck wants to show expressions of devotion rather than have them explain themselves. Of course, they converse with one another, but the most striking images are those where they are silent, and the camera lingers for just the right amount of time. There is some narration by Alyssa as she contemplates the situation and how it’s taking a toll on her. Two of the most memorable lines she narrates are “The awareness of time turned upside down was always strong in memory” and “While elsewhere for someone, it was by now replete with vast, horrific content; had already become the end of everything, or the beginning of a long agony.” Both refer to the inevitability of escaping their present and time taking having its effect. Fascinatingly, Jessica Oreck manages to tell a story about various dualities amidst tragedy.
There’s the blossoming of young love and the terrors of war, the growth of the seeds and their eventual decay, amongst others, slowly appearing as you absorb the film bit by bit. However, in the end, it focuses on what it means to be human when all your humanity has been taken away by sheer cataclysms and vicissitudes. With this inclination, and its look and atmospheric dread, comes the Tarkovsky-esque similitudes. It doesn’t contain the dream-like one-shot sequences that Andrei is known for, but it has moments of stillness that give heft to the project in its less effective parts. These moments of quietude are the ones that cause the viewer to be in a sort of trance, inciting the short moments of shuteye. And this is all part of the experience. Compared to Tarkovsky’s features, One Man Dies a Million Times’ scenes lack effectiveness. However, the dread filling the screen and the silence occupy a state of solemn insight, and it does help get into the mindset of sheer tragedy.
Something in the latter parts of its story, mainly relating to its development and loss of entrancement as it transgresses, gets in the way of the audience experiencing something unique and transcendent. It’s meditative, and its beautifully concocted shots are woven nicely with its stunning cinematography and pulsating sound, both design and mixing. So, at the very least, you can say that One Man Dies a Million Times is a rewarding watch – a film that explores the evils of man and the juxtaposition of love amidst war. Jessica Oreck’s crisp filmmaking touch helps preserve that part of history.
One Man Dies A Million Times will have its theatrical premiere in New York, with a week-long run at the IFC CENTER on July 29 – August 4, 2022. The film will be released theatrically in all other markets from August 12, and it will not be released online.