One of the challenges of reviewing television made in non-English speaking countries is that there is often a cultural gap between the home country and viewers in the United States. That's especially the case with television from Russia, which shares enough cultural DNA with America to feel about 35% off of the familiar.
That's one of the challenges with the Russian series Sekta, which premiered last Tuesday on the international television streaming service MHz Choice. The show is grim and dark, and there are times when you might need to emotionally decompress after watching an episode. But if you stick with it, you'll be rewarded with a story that is hard to predict delivered by some of the best actors in Russia.
Sekta centers around a group of specialists, known as "deprogrammers," whose task is to rescue people from the clutches of cults. Their methods are intense - bordering on abuse - and involve breaking down the target physically and mentally on every level. In this case, the deprogrammers have been hired to "rescue" former model Nika from the Primordials, a sect led by a charismatic hypnotist named Berk.
The deprogrammers need some extra help and someone with a bit of medical knowledge, so they hire Lilya, a moody and distant woman who is hiding the fact that she was once the member of a cult whose members killed themselves in a mass event. She is both drawn to Nika's plight but also well aware of the dangers she faces inside the cult.
The deprogramming is not textbook and it doesn't appear to be working. Which becomes a problem when Berk identifies and strikes back at the team. Things quickly escalate and without giving anything away, the final couple of episodes turn into a whirlwind of crazy.
While Sekta doesn't appear to have had a huge budget, director Gela Babluani's his first Russian project is as impressive as were his European films such as 13 Tzameti . The scenes are relentlessly grim and foreboding. And there are times when it feels as if the despair of the world is just hanging over every scene like a depressing fog.
Lilya is played by Svetlana Khodchenkova, who is arguably one of Russia's best-known actresses right now. American audiences might recognize her from roles in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and The Wolverine, where she played Viper. Lilya is haunted by her past, looking for redemption while also not being an especially nice person. In lesser hands, Lilya would be hard to watch and there are certainly moments like that in the series. But Khodchenkova's talent transcends the role and will keep you engrossed through the grimmest moments (and there are plenty of them).
But for all of Khodchenkova's talents, she's almost upstaged in the second half of the season by Marta Timofeeva, who plays Lilya's young daughter Kira. As the season progresses, she exhibits a growing somewhat undefined psychic talent and she becomes the subject of a battle between the two sides. Timofeeva is unsettling to watch, equal parts creepy and child-like.
I wasn't sure what to think of Filipp Yankovsky's portrayal of the cult leader Berk, who often comes off as more creepy that God-like. But as I mentioned at the top, sometimes watching it from America we miss the cultural nuance of shows from other places. And that's certainly the case with Berk, who appears to have been based on popular Russian psychics such as Alan Chumak. While America audiences might not make the connection, Russian television audiences seem to have fascinated by the resemblance when the series premiered in 2019.
So you should watch the eight-episode Sekta? I'd answer yes, although with the caveat that it is a grim slog at times. The last episode is worth the ride, but don't be surprised if you feel as if you need a bucket of whiskey when it's all over.
The first two episodes of Sekta premiered Tuesday, June 8th, 2021 on MHz Choice. Two episode a week will premiere each Tuesday through the end of June.