From Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho [USA, 1960] to The Florida Project [Sean Baker, USA, 2017], motels have long dominated American cinema. Forever sites of the seedy and the sordid, they serve as the bed-bugged backdrops for the characters’ misdeeds and misfortunes. But what about those who never get to leave? In Rio, writer and director Zhenia Kazankina flips the trope on its head: the hotel and its staff are the consistent characters while the crimes and criminals make up their transient background.
Set in a wintery border town, the bleak hotel seems to only be inhabited by its two young staff, Paulina and Nadia. When a tall, dark, handsome stranger arrives, it is clear that the hotel is mainly used for very specific purposes – ‘No one stays here longer than a night, it’s just ten minutes to the border’ says Paulina. Although we see him asking for a specific room and meticulously inspecting his car with plastic gloves, it is not clear exactly what his business is. In a refreshing swerve away from a predictable plot, the new arrival does not take over the story and instead the sibling style relationship between the two women takes centre stage.
The portrayal of Paulina and Nadia’s life is successful not only because of well written scenes but also because of the chemistry between Liza Yankovskaya and Dasha Mureeva, who play Paulina and Nadia respectively. One particularly good example of this is the scene where they squabble over a highly outdated translating machine, turning from women to children in an instant. Their innocence and frivolity amidst their inescapably mundane daily routines gives the film an unexpected and playful contrast to the setting’s claustrophobic mediocrity.
Further to this, for all its drabness the film is pervaded by a dream-like quality that seems at odds with, or is perhaps born out of, the endless banality of their lives. First of all, the naked percussion that makes up the soundtrack – at times like a repurposed excerpt from Crash Bandicoot - seems more in tune with an exotic elsewhere than the small, snowy town. On top of this, Kazankina includes kooky cut away scenes such as the girls’ stone-faced dance routine and Paulina’s dive into the pool.
This blur between reality and fantasy continues right until the end of the film: Paulina wakes up next to the man and steals a bag full of money, only to wake up again in a scene almost identical to the short’s opening. Whether the events of the previous night actually happened or not, we never know.
Kazankina is clearly not one to give simple answers. But although the entire twenty minutes is submerged in mystery, at least two ideas rise clearly to the surface. The first: that the relationships we have make dead-end jobs bearable. The second: that money can mean freedom. The bag full of cash is emblazoned with the brand name ‘Rion’, obscured to say ‘Rio’ – it speaks of travel, adventure, and the money that is intertwined with these luxuries. Nadia and Paulina, however, remain confined within the empty hotel, escaping only through dreams.
'Rio' was the winner of the Gold Frame at Short Focus Film Festival 2020.