Zemletryasenie is Armenia’s entry into the disaster movie genre and it’s a poignant one. Taking the very real events from their 1988 earthquake, this emotionally charged drama shows how spirits can be made or broken depending on how you deal with such a huge event. It also shows the harsh reality that sometimes luck just isn’t on your side. By taking itself absolutely seriously it delivers hard-hitting messages whilst carefully treading the melodrama line.
The disasters faced
The Earthquake itself, looting thieves, building collapses, the social stigmas between generations and the issues facing thousands of now orphaned children.
Zemletryasenie wastes little time getting to the earthquake itself, hitting around 15 minutes in. By that time we have already been introduced to several different families all having their own daily dramas. Although it is only the late 80’s, Armenia is still very much in a state of flux and you forget how technology is literally just a few years away from causing a huge leap forward in communications. We have a family where older parents have pushed their daughter away for getting pregnant before wedlock with her boyfriend. We have a military dad returning home by plane from Russia to visit his relocated family. His family have gone to the market to get supper. A brother and sister are discussing whether or not she should give up on her dreams to marry a richer gentleman whom just gifted her a marble table.
She’ll be thankful for that table since when the earthquake hits she will spend the rest of the movie trapped underneath it battling to survive. The earthquake takes place across several cities and the geography of the movie is quite crucial as many of the families are in different places trying to find each other again to see who has survived. There are some superb scenes during and immediately afterwards as we begin to see that Zemletryasenie is not interested in painting a veneer over the horrific events. It’s not bloody, but it goes for the emotions.
From here the movie switches into recovery and response mode. Not everyone will survive but almost everyone has a need to band together. Nowhere is this felt more than with the children. The film goes to great lengths to show that not one child that was orphaned because of the earthquake had to be adopted. In fact, its the closing statement from the film that’s displayed on the screen as the movie ends. That does mean that as children are passed from fallen character to fallen character, you feel increasingly like the children will be emotionally scarred for eternity with all that they have seen and dealt with. The main thrust of the story sees the returning Russian dad Konstantin and Armenian Robert joining forces to help save Lilit whose trapped under the marble table that saved her life. They need a crane but the logistics are troublesome and at the mercy of the world and the people around them. Who will survive?
Why is it worth watching?
Firstly, as I alluded to, the 80s seem so recent but for a poor country, Armenia is reliant on word of mouth, trucks and radio broadcasts to organise relief efforts. It’s a stark reminder of how a few power outages during chaos would send the modern world right back to that level of communication. It also exposes poor design as stone buildings crumble into dust and rubble. This region simply wasn’t built with materials to survive an earthquake and that in turn raised the death toll.
The film’s tone is completely serious. In the end credits, there is side by side comparisons of original photos taken from actual disaster and shots from the film. They are nigh on identical. These are often taken from musical montages that break up the film. After a harrowing section, the movie breaks away from most of the main cast to focus on short pieces of world-building. It’s these sections that match the original pictures and I found that attention to detail fascinating.
Music plays a large roll in Zemletryaseine. There are a couple of themes used throughout to underscore key moments and there is an Eastern European romanticism with huge outpourings of grief or woe as the theme tune steams in. Whilst the song itself is lovely and we are shown how Armenia (and to an extent Russia) wish to score their drama, it may feel too on the nose at times for viewers expecting Hollywood graphs of emotions. Here we cry, have a theme song, cry some more, theme song, pan over dead bodies, have a moment of reflection and cry some more. It’s a different way of processing sorrow but that’s one of the gems that world cinema brings to the table.
The acting here is superb. The cast itself is quite large with around 20-25 key players and characters that we will follow to one end or another. They can all wring emotion out in their native languages but I urge you to watch the film with subtitles. The film itself comes with an English dub and it is easily one of the most lifeless and weirdly nuanced dubs I’ve heard in some years. It’s worth a comedy viewing once but you’ll find it is at odds with the tone of the movie.
The earthquake itself is done really well. There is a lot of destruction on screen and symbolic imagery of the towns falling down. Two scenes stand out for me. There is a scene where Konstantin is landing in a plane as the earthquake is happening. As he looks out the window he can see everything collapsing as they are hitting the runway. It is an iconic and excellent unique feature. The second is the other centrepiece from the earthquake as we follow a hospital rescue as the building collapses down on itself in slow motion. Outside of that, the carnage on set afterwards is expertly put together and the scale of it really sells the magnitude of the disaster.
There is a lot of heart in Zemletryaseine. It works well as an ensemble cast. One of the most interesting characters is Erem. He shuns his pregnant daughter and boyfriend away for not being married and his poor wife has to put up with his decision. No sooner has the earthquake happened he spends much of the movie trying to find his wife in the rubble of his home whilst finding out that his daughter has gone into labour in the aftermath. A classic thing to do in a disaster movie if I say so myself! He has to learn to eat an awful lot of humble pie but in the knowledge that it may be too late to say sorry to anyone at all.
‘Oh God – we must learn but why must you teach us so harshly?’
Three memorable moments
- The earthquake taking place through the window of a landing aeroplane.
- Konstantin and Robert’s exchange towards the end for embodying the underlying message of the movie.
- Anna trying to do everything possible to get herself and her son help.
The obligatory weird moment
Aside from the obscene amount of smoking, it’s the English dub that is so misjudged it ends up being cringeworthy. Someone is crying at the loss of their loved one and the voiceover phones in a ‘waaaaahhhhh’. It’s as if they read from the page without seeing the film on the screen because the tone rarely matches the on-screen action. There were moments I actually laughed out loud and this film is designed to make you bawl your eyes out. It’s that bad.
The drinking game
Our rich character who is busy beforehand buying gifts to woo Lilit is so shocked at what happens in the earthquake he shuts down and spends the rest of the movie moving dead bodies like a man possessed. Each time he is shown doing so in increasingly more driven ways, take a drink.
Zemletryaseine is a movie that wears its heart on its sleeve. It’s an outpouring of grief wrapped up in a subtle message of national pride. It’s a harrowing but important story that is beautifully told even if there are some heavy-handed moments of melodrama smeared on top. Just avoid the English dub with all your might!
Rating – 4/5 Excellent
If you liked Zemletryaseine then you may like…
- Aftershock – a film that deals entirely with a family separated post Earthquake assuming each other had died
- Haeundae – similar emotional outpouring tone but this time in Korea
- The Road – a bit of an outside shot but it’s another film that is all about making sure the children survive
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