Fri, Jul 11, 2003 - Page 20 News List

An angel in a land without God

The story of a young girl sold into prostitution is portrayed with sensitivity, but without pathos

By Stephen Holden  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE

Oksana Akinshina gives an accomplished performance as Lilya, a girl who is forced into sexual slavery.


In many ways the 16-year-old title character of Lukas Moodysson's great, heartbreaking Lilya 4-Ever could be any throwaway teenager living anywhere in the world. But growing up in a grim unidentified town somewhere in the former Soviet Union (much of the movie was filmed in Estonia) makes Lilya's plight infinitely sadder than if she were an overprivileged brat mopily foraging in a land of plenty.

Roaming through an impoverished town whose decrepit public housing resembles stacked-up rows of army barracks crumbling under a slate sky, the local youth have nothing to do but scrounge around for whatever drugs and booze they can come up with, although sniffing glue seems the most popular escape into oblivion.

The movie, written and directed by the Swedish filmmaker who created a deeply humane, even-handed portrait of a 1970s commune in Together, follows Lilya (Oksana Akinshina) on a descent into a hell whose inevitability only makes it feel all the more tragic.

Lilya's future, like that of thousands of other girls drifting through the wreckage of the former Soviet Union, looks so bleak that she will pursue almost any path that holds out the promise of a better life somewhere else. And like thousands of those girls, this vulnerable, credulous teenager, who prays earnestly to a cheap painting of an angel cradling a child and boasts of having the same birthday as Britney Spears, is tricked into bartering away her one readily marketable asset, her nubile body.

Lilya's story is a variation on countless true stories that have come out of Eastern Europe since the fall of Communism about the luring of desperate underage girls with false promises of jobs in other countries, where they find themselves enslaved and forced to turn tricks without pay. Promised a real job in Sweden by a decoy posing as a boyfriend, Lilya is handed a fake passport and plane ticket and sent abroad. Her prospective employer, who immediately confiscates her documents, is really a pimp in a ruthlessly well-organized international operation in human traffic.

Film Notes


Written and directed by: Lukas Moodysson

Starring:Oksana Akinshina (Lilya), Ljubov Agapova (Lilya's mother), Artiom Bogucharskij (Volodya), Elina Beninson (Natasha), Lilia Shinkareva (Aunt Anna), Pavel Ponomarev (Andrei) and Tomas Neumann (Witek)

Running time: 109 minutes

Taiwan Release: tomorrow

The most remarkable achievement of the film, is its presentation of Lilya's story as both an archetypal case study and a personal drama whose spunky central character you come to care about so deeply that you want to cry out a warning at each step toward her ruination.

When first seen, Lilya is living in comfortable squalor with a tough, embittered mother (Ljubov Agapova), who barely tolerates her. Hardly a model child, Lilya is spirited, with a streak of defiance. Her hopes vault to the skies when her mother announces she is moving with her boyfriend to the US, which the girl sees as the promised land.

Those hopes are dashed when the mother decides her daughter should stay behind until she is sent for. Their parting, in which Lilya chases after her mother's car for a final desperate embrace, then lands in a mud puddle, augurs all that is to come.

The next day Lilya's aunt Anna (Lilia Shinkareva), a hard-bitten crone, arrives to take care of her and immediately commandeers the apartment and forces her niece to move to a rundown hellhole, where she is left to fend for herself. When word comes from America that Lilya's mother is renouncing all responsibility for her, she resorts to selling her body at the local disco.

Through it all, she clings to her only friend, Volodya (Artiom Bogucharskij), a younger boy tossed out of the house by his brute of a father. And the scenes of these two children huddling against the cold in an abandoned submarine base are as forlorn as anything imagined by the Italian neo-realist cinema.

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