In one of my favorite jokes connecting Russian pessimism with a failure of imagination, two Russian fishermen catch a golden fish. It offers them three wishes if they’ll spare its life. The first fisherman says, “I wish that the hold of the boat be filled with cases of vodka,” and his wish is granted. The second says, “I wish that the entire ocean be turned into vodka,” and they lower a bucket and start drinking. Then the fish reminds them that they have a third wish. They look at each other, scratch their heads, and the first says, “I guess we’ll just take another case.”

Alexander Sokurov’s 218-minute video, Confession, manages to elevate this theme to the level of art. Considered by many Russia’s finest living director, he’s created a madrigal to melancholy, a hymn to failure, in which an apparently gay naval commander lacks the courage to act on his desires. Set in the cramped space of a nondescript ship amid barren arctic snowscapes, it consists mostly of the sailors’ repetitive actions and the commander’s lugubrious narration. The few possibilities for happiness or meaning hinted at hardly offer convincing ways out of the gloom. Stan Brakhage includes a line from Louis Zukofsky’s poem “A”—”Raise grief to music”—in his 1967 meditation on war, 23rd Psalm Branch. Sokurov may be said to have raised melancholy to music in Confession, being shown at Facets this Sunday at 12:30.

Originally made in 1998 in five parts of 52 minutes each for television, the video was cut to its current length (by Sokurov) a year later. The title for each part has the same subhead—”From the Commander’s Diary”—and is followed by a disclaimer calling the plot and characters “a fantasy of the author.” And in some ways the video is structured as a diary: the commander is heard in voice-over, and most of the shots represent his point of view, even those in which he appears.

But we also get many details of the sailors’ lives—as the commander sees them. Life onboard is an endlessly repetitive routine: washing the deck, dressing, undressing, cleaning oneself without benefit of a shower, washing one’s clothes while showering. Swirling snow in the surrounding landscapes rhymes with the sailors’ busy movements, making their condition seem a natural—if hopelessly random—state. It’s not that Sokurov transcends any of this by providing hope. Rather he creates a tremendously moving portrait of despair and its causes through imagery that’s both sensuous and confined, giving his repetitions a strange beauty. As the work gradually unfolds, we also come to understand what entraps these men, particularly the commander, even if they don’t.

In some cases the commander has set an activity in motion: sailor after sailor is asked to disrobe during a medical exam he’s ordered. In his pseudophilosophical narration, the commander appears to speculate—insofar as one can infer from subtitles—about whether he could have a relationship with any of his men, but then acknowledges that it couldn’t last because the sailors come and go: “I am beach and they are water.” Though he spends a great deal of time viewing his subordinates shirtless, the ship’s tight interiors and the glacial pace of the men’s labors seem to drain them of vitality. Not especially lively and rarely playful, they appear a fantasy of male flesh divorced from any inner life.

The landscapes are even bleaker than the ship: rocky ridges laced with snow against dull gray skies, or tiny settlements against snow, including one village the commander describes as having been built “stone by stone by slaves.” In one long scene the sailors unload coal, bag by bag, in a place that appears to be just a few old buildings. At first their movements seem mechanical to the point of abstraction, but gradually the camera moves in, and soon there’s a close-up of the coal, whose blunt, gritty presence offers one example of the way the video alternates between mournful distance and banal physicality. Some scenes emphasize various kinds of entrapment. In one, the camera slowly pulls back from a stooped sailor cleaning a confined area of the ship, framing him in the narrow passageway to suggest a man imprisoned by architecture. But as the camera continues its pullback, we see another sailor doing the same thing in the foreground, which transforms the image once again: now it’s the identical, monotonous work that dehumanizes them—at least as much as the commander’s gaze.

The commander quotes briefly from Chekhov’s short story “Gusev,” which is set in the tropics. Inspired to write the piece after he witnessed two burials at sea, Chekhov includes a startling account of the fish that greet the protagonist’s corpse as it sinks beneath the water’s surface. The creepy physicality of that description is reminiscent of the beefcake and dead lands of Confession—as it is of a man’s almost comically inept attempts to deal with his father’s corpse in Sokurov’s 1990 film The Second Circle.

Near the end the commander confesses his “bitterness” that nothing will come about in his life: “People will not change because they can’t or they don’t want to.” The “nothing” perhaps represents his ongoing failure to consummate his desires; indeed, one guesses he’s a virgin. But he also seems to refer to a more general failure of imagination—he’s one of those who “can’t change.”

Sokurov’s images, which constantly collapse in on themselves, emphasize self-enclosure—the compositions in many of his films and videos have a curiously warped feel. The light source in the shower scene is sometimes at the edge of the frame, sharpening and appearing to limit it. And an outdoor night scene toward the end includes an open fire near the center of the composition, but rather than illuminate the surrounding darkness, the flame seems about to be smothered by it.

The video portrays a dullness of mind so opposed to change that it finds only copies of itself in the world outside. The shower scene, for example, shows a clothed sailor looking lasciviously at his nude comrades, smiling. But he’s less a separate character than a projection of the commander’s desires. Ultimately Sokurov explores the way human consciousness can become a prison, walling off the self from visual, emotional, or physical contact. When the sailors watch TV, it seems to reflect their life rather than offer an alternative: they see only a few snippets of divers in bathing suits, a joke on their own alienated relationship to water.

There are few hints of escape. The commander speculates that the arctic would be a good place to read “thick” books by “old” writers, losing oneself in literature. And Confession includes a brief dream, a cut from a sleeping sailor to images of swimming and gathering berries. But these are far outweighed by the story’s various tombs—the arctic, the ship, the commander’s vision. Near the end he looks out at yet another snowy landscape and speculates, “The serfs of the 30s were looking at this terrifying beauty.” But we learn nothing of serfs or of the 30s. Instead, when he says, “I am looking at it too,” we see his hand out of focus in the foreground, superimposed on the landscape. Inevitably the filtering effect of individual consciousness prevents the commander from truly connecting with another time, again locking him in the trap of the self.