A slideshow of filmed images from Russia and Eastern Europe, decontextualized, no voice-over or dialogue (though people notice the camera and speak to it). Generally quite long shots cut together, though the sound is mixed and faded nicely, not always simply cut with the picture. Camera is often moving, slowly gliding through a scene, and the photography is top-notch.
It’s probably my favorite Akerman film so far, at least the most lively and eventful (from what I remember of From The Other Side). Much of the joy comes from watching people stare back at the camera and crew. Chris Marker would approve. Mostly shot in public places, she also films some women at home, posing for a motion portrait or going about their day. Mostly it gave me a happy sense of peace, with vague anthropological and historical interest – not an intensely moving film, but much more enjoyable than any description of it could sound.
The montage has no discernable purpose, and I saw some complaints about how she almost ends with a long cello performance followed by the musician collecting roses from audience members, but then cuts to one more street scene, perversely denying the movie its obvious finale.
E. Henderson in Slant:
[Russia] was at a précis between history and future, and many of the individual frames in Akerman’s motion picture slideshow rumble with the juxtaposition of the Old World and the New. What Akerman does not do is offer exposition, commentary, or argument. Essentially, she eschews the tenets of documentary in order to avoid clouding her presentation up with, as she suggests in her explicatory notes, agenda.
As observed by Jonathan Rosenbaum, From the East is one of Akerman’s—and maybe cinema’—most fully realized attempts at existing as place, not setting. Rosenbaum notes that almost each and every human being caught by Akerman’s camera (some candidly, others in deliberately staged tableaux) appears to be waiting interminably for God knows what, standing and looking and breathing as Akerman pans to the right, pans to the left.
Rosenbaum also says (and I, too, was reminded of the Straub-Huillet):
The only other film I know that imparts such a vivid sense of being somewhere is the Egyptian section of Straub-Huillet’s Too Early, Too Late. Everyone goes to movies in search of events, but the extraordinary events in Akerman’s sorrowful, intractable film are the shots themselves–the everyday recorded by a powerful artist with an acute eye and ear.
Grunes calls it “a film populated by ghosts whose substantial reality provides an index of the depth of humanity that, metaphorically, has been lost,” and finds tons of deeper meaning in the shots.
Jon Jost liked it somewhat less (though it’s impossible to like it more than Grunes did):
Again and again the camera passes grim townscapes, and their equally grim occupants… Akerman in a sense gives very little, though what she gives provides enough suggestive power for the viewer’s mind to swarm with thoughts. . . Critics naturally scurry in to fill in the blanks with innumerable speculations, most of which show more about themselves than what is on screen. For those for whom guidance is a requirement a film such as this is doubtless quickly boring and pointless.