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Screened out of competition at Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival Rainer Sarnet’s The Invisible Fight opens with Chinese kung fu warriors defying gravity as they battle Russian soldiers on the Soviet-China 1973 border. This bold intro promises genre-twisting spectacle to follow. We then meet protagonist Rafael, a young Soviet soldier enthralled by the forbidden martial arts, who joins an Orthodox monastery of ex-hippie warrior monks eager to master their mystical fighting techniques.

With vivid retro visuals, philosophical themes about seeking belonging, a sharp Black Sabbath soundtrack and absurdist humor, Sarnet has crafted a singular cult film. While mainstream audiences may be baffled, open minds will discover a soulful celebration of life’s invisible connections.

Far from random provocation, this blend of elements organically came together based on Sarnet’s commitment to his creative vision, as he felt restricted trying to make films others wanted at university. Realising he’d “rather make ‘bad films’ true to my passion,” this ethos fuelled his unrestrained approach.

Incorporating snappy humor and comics-like storyboards, the film notably resists broader commentary. As Sarnet described, “At university I was taught all art must critique something but I don’t have that impulse in me.” Instead it investigates boundless human experiences with openness.

Inspirations and Parallels

Sarnet spoke extensively about his inspirations and intentions behind the film’s unusual concoction of themes and styles: “The inspiration came from a book called ‘Not of This World’. It contained real-life stories of two young orthodox monks who both died young in 1970’s and 1980’s. The story that stood out for me in the book spoke about a young monk, Father Rafael, who was active in the Soviet Union during the Seventies, in the monastery in Pechory.”

On his genre-blending approach, Sarnet explained, “I began to explore the era and it turned out that many young Russian monks were ex-hippies. There was a resistance to the material world, and, as hippies, orthodox monks wear their hair long, have black clothes, and there are skulls in the catacombs; it struck me as very rock’n’roll.” Discovering this book has led Sarnet to want to learn more about monk Rafael and his curiosity has led him to the Pskovo-Pechersky Monastery where he eventually got baptised. “I’m not sure whether the purpose of my research mission was to find more facts or answers to some of my personal questions.”

Neither pure action nor religious parable, The Invisible Fight inhabits a realm of its own making. Sarnet’s passion for eccentric detours beats at the film’s heart. While mainstream audiences may be baffled, those with open minds will discover a soulful celebration of life’s invisible connections.

While on the surface quite peculiar, the film taps into universal emotions. “In a nutshell, the story is about an elephant in a porcelain shop,” said Sarnet. The fish-out-of-water protagonist provided a reflection of Sarnet’s own experiences: “When I came to the monastery, I was that hooligan in a monastery so I lived this story to a degree.” This mish-mash reflects the monks themselves – imperfect misfits seeking meaning. As the director noted, “The truth about the monastery is that it’s not full of holy saints but ordinary people on their own journeys, with their own sins.”

By embracing the contradictory, The Invisible Fight evokes the strangeness and wonder of being human. Sarnet remarked, “Most martial arts films have a scenery-chewing antagonist, whereas this is a hangout movie with the occasional fight. It is more introspective and careful than you might expect from its genre trappings…”

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Editor in Chief of Ikon London Magazine, journalist, film producer and founder of The DAFTA Film Awards (The DAFTAs).