MS Slavic 7, the new film from directors Sofia Bohdanowicz and Deragh Campbell, is deceptively small and inanimate. Its story is based on the existence of real correspondence between Bohdanowicz’s great-grandmother Zofia and the poet and Nobel Prize nominee Józef Wittlin. The inherent limitations of the film’s focus are due in part to budget constraints, but that’s a reductive complaint; what’s done within those limits is what makes the film feel as substantial as it does.
Toronto-based Audrey (Campbell)—as a stand-in for Bohdanowicz—visits Houghton Library at Harvard for a chance to study the aforementioned letters. At first, her examination appears to focus entirely on their tactile existence, their touch and appearance, even the sounds they make while handled. Through clever use of subtitles and Audrey’s halting explanations, however, it becomes clear there’s more at work here, philosophically and emotionally; the letters begin to transcend their humble objecthood. MS Slavic 7 juxtaposes this inner journey with Audrey’s outer struggle to gain control of the material from her family, namely her aunt Ania (Elizabeth Rucker). This appears as a provincial problem, one that frustrates Audrey as she travels, literally and figuratively, through time and space on her search. The modest tension of the film, such as it is, comes easily through its present-day back and forths, animated capably by Campbell, yet it’s Zofia’s heartrending missives, unchanged after decades, that linger.
In this realm of pure language, MS Slavic 7 is able to explore longing, sadness, dislocation, and the very means by which we grasp to articulate these and other feelings to each other. As it arrives at these points, suddenly Bohdanowicz and Campbell’s film does not seem so small after all. And while a glance at any single frame doesn’t necessarily reveal much emotive power, the film’s very minimalism—subtitles overlaid on silence, still long takes, and other bits of fine-grained minutia—achieves new levels of meaning.