Ivan I. Tverdovskiy’s “Zoology” is certainly one of the tamer features I’ve ever seen at Fantastic Fest. There isn’t a single drop of blood, no deadly creatures, no body mutilation, no gross-out humor, or anything of the kind onscreen that can often be associated with this Drafthouse-based film festival. But it’s that lack of such content that makes Tverdovskiy’s second feature film such an incredible feat of storytelling. It may not feature the usual characteristics of genre films that play the festival, but it is reaches cathartic depths that other films of its type never even dream of.
“Zoology” tells the story of Natasha, a middle-aged Russian woman of few words still living at home with her mother. Natasha makes her living at the local zoo, where when she isn’t spending time interacting with the animals, she’s working hard at making sure the right kinds and amounts of food are being ordered to keep the animals fed. She loves the animals (they’re arguably the only people that give her the time of day) and needs the money, which is perhaps why she puts up with the abhorrent treatment her coworkers subject her to daily.
Natasha continues through her mundane and repetitive life until one day she wakes up to find that she has grown a tail. What makes “Zoology” such an enthralling and unique experience is how it portrays the tail. Natasha isn’t shocked or scared at all. If she is, she doesn’t let on. She reacts very matter-of-factly to the discovery, keeping its existence to herself and visiting doctors in hopes of uncovering some sort of explanation and solution. The doctors don’t seem shocked either, treating her new appendage as if it was an everyday problem like a splinter or dislocated shoulder. To make matters worse, townsfolk including Natasha’s own mother tell tales of a monstrous beast wandering the streets. How they first discovered this is never really explained, though some textual hints could provide one or two solutions.
Natalya Pavelenkova is a revelation as Natasha, delivering a sympathetic and captivating performance that elevates the entire film to a fascinating character study. Working from his own script, Tverdovskiy takes an observational approach to shooting his story, making the film feel even more real and the deadpan humor land so very well. He doesn’t seem intent on punishing his characters, a facet that combined Pavlenkova’s wonderful performance makes it impossible not to fall in love with this film’s main character.
We watch on with glee as Natasha comes in to her own, shedding her drabby looks for a new haircut and clothing style. Like her, we are cautiously optimistic when a man takes notice of her and begins taking her out on dates. We laugh at the stories that circulate about the tailed beast, and relish in the irony when Natasha adds details of her own. It’s a hard for something so character-driven to remain interesting, but Tverdovskiy conjures up palpable emotions and takes us down so many interesting narrative roads. “Zoology” announces the arrival of a filmmaker with a wholly unique point of view. I’m eager to see where he turns his camera next.