People who complain that watching foreign films and documentaries is too much like swallowing medicine should probably avoid The 3 Rooms Of Melancholia, a foreign documentary that's even dourer than its name. In many ways a challenging and beautiful film, 3 Rooms sets a predominately despairing mood. Director Pirjo Honkasalo offers three views of contemporary life in and around Chechnya, focusing on what's become of the region's children. Her approach is more impressionistic than informative, and much of 3 Rooms plays out without narration or conversation—just images of ritual and ruin set to the doleful playing of a string quartet.
The film begins at a boys' military academy near St. Petersburg, where orphaned cadets prepare to fight in the conflict that orphaned them. It's a cold, drab institution with little diversion—even the TV is tuned to news reports about terrorism—and when the kids sing a song about "letting the horse run free," the irony is both rich and pathetic. At the end of the section, one of the boys leaves on a day pass to visit an infirm grandmother who's even sadder and more confined than her kin. The film's second section is even bleaker, shot in black and white and packed with images of bombed-out buildings in Grozny, the Chechen capitol. After shots of gas-masked workers, beggars, and rumbling tanks, the segment ends with a sick mother's children being shuttled to an orphanage, on a long bus ride through checkpoints and barren fields. The final section takes place on a farm in a Muslim community, where the children have sheep's blood smeared on their foreheads as part of an arcane ceremony, and later watch planes streak by overhead through the power lines that flank the dirt roads.
By the time Honkasalo pans slowly across a pair of forlorn horses tied to a tree—remember that song at the military academy?—viewers will either be transported by her somber artistry or begging for someone to stick a gasoline-filled syringe into their veins. Honkasalo can't be faulted for telling it like it is: Life is hard in the former Soviet republics, and she gets underneath how it feels to be young and hopeless. But Honkasalo hits her one low note with little variation in mood and little sense of what options may exist for a beleaguered people. As art, 3 Rooms is magnificent, but as a viewing experience, it's almost impossible.