Mainly known as a director of documentaries, Ukrainian Sergei Loznitsa with A Gentle Creature keeps that observational eye open blending it with a surreal and grotesque story that is doused in the politics and society of the region.

A woman (Vasilina Makovtseva) has a lonely job at a petrol station, her life is routine and dull. Getting home one day she finds that a parcel she sent to her incarcerated husband has been returned and she has to go to the post office to get it, and pay a fee on top. The pettiness of the official adding to the frustration.

She then treks across the country by taxi, bus and train to the prison on the other side of Russia to deliver the parcel, and try and find out what is going on. Reaching the town, she’s lost but finds a room at a local guesthouse where there is a hideous party of locals, crammed into a room, children clambering around, with vodka and coarse conversation lubricating the evening. It’s a clammy ugly scene, its colour palette fleshy foul and fetid.

From there the town opens up as a wretched pit of prostitution and crime with the law vying with the criminals to outdo each other as in a horrendous scene at a level crossing. The town could be an overspill from the prison, but also a purgatory for the population appear not to be able (or maybe want) to leave.

It’s a living nightmare that the unsmiling, utterly riveting Makovtseva wends her way through. A representation of Russia past and present, eavesdropping on conversations and stories on trains, buses and offices. Corruption, drunkenness, crime and violence are endemic to a life that appears to have no value – as we overhear a horrid story of a dismemberment in a bar. This along with a bureaucracy that minces minds with its pettiness, drains hope from everyone that comes into contact with it.

So loaded with allegory and metaphor is the film, that taken with the magnificent sound design and use of the screen, it is possible to see Makovtseva as an incarnation of Mother Russia herself, almost silently contemplating, not judging, her country.

However there’s an overkill of symbolism in the later scenes, with a protracted banquet, that stretches an already long film. Followed by a scene so grim it reminded this writer of Peter Greenaway’s The Baby of Macon and the final sequence and the assault’s relentless and calculated cruelty. The metaphor is obvious, its value is far more debateable, and undermines what up until then was a genuinely challenging and thought-provoking film.