If you are not familiar with rhythmic gymnastics, Marta Prus’ documentary, Over The Limit can be downright terrifying. If you are, it might be all too familiar and hitting way too close to home.
Margarita Mamun’s road to the Olympic gold medal is portrayed in a stunningly, exquisitely beautiful way that celebrates one of the most unlikely heroines of the sport. The film creates 74 minutes of gripping drama – it is probably only one slice of the truth (though honestly, who’d be interested in watching trainings where everything is smooth?), but it’s one of the most important works portraying RG.
Amina Zaripova: – Everything is all right.
Irina Viner: – Nothing is all right.
It’s fair to say that the personal coach of Margarita Mamun, Amina Zaripova and the head of Russian rhythmic gymnastics, Irina Viner-Usmanova agree to disagree quite many times during the movie. Rita, the “subject” of the quarrels, sometimes rolls her eyes as if she was a child, caught in the crossfire of a parental fight, fearing what will come next.
Actually, Rita Mamun is spending quite a lot of screen-time in Over the Limit with seemingly being afraid of things. Being a highly sensitive and not-so-competitive person does not help. While other gymnasts might bounce insults off, she looks to be the one who is desperately willing to do the right thing to please everyone, but somehow ends up yet again on the receiving end of a verbal attack. And insults are plentiful: Irina Viner uses quite some colourful language and achieves the almost impossible feat of nearly making it through the movie without using the exact same curse twice.
But, as it is with many things, you should look past the style and see the substance. While Viner is capable of volleying downright abusive tirades, she’s doing a thing that brought her to the level of where she is. She backs her insults up with very professional remarks and explanations about style and performance. Unfortunately, there are coaches who think “Russian” style is the coaching style only – the in-your-face, kicking-your-ass, no-compromise, fuck-you-and-do-it-again-this-was-shit approach. They might forget to pick up on the substance behind it – the insights and even wisdom wrapped in the barbed wire of the words.
Irina Viner seems to be omnipresent and omniscient. She commands everyone with a sneer that sometimes balances on the edge of utter disgust: her fellow coaches, her gymnasts, everyone. Even from afar, with such energy and such force that Rita gets the worst of the rollicking via FaceTime before the Olympics. There is no Big Brother in the world of rhythmic gymnastics, but Viner could be as close to a Big Mother as possible, the only person in RG who dares to say the sentence:
‘I don’t give a shit about what the judges like.’
She has the luxury of not giving a shit about what the judges like: her gymnasts are winning, and for such a long time, that winning is itself is not enough. She demands winning with style. Winning with a show. Winning with leaving the audience breathless. ‘Only’ good is not good enough. It’s maximalism turned up to the 11, but at the same time, Viner is under immense pressure. Everyone now expects winning – everywhere. The resulting pressure is relentless, and our heroines pass it to each other.
Amina Zaripova gets caught between a rock and a hard place. On one hand, she tries to protect and shield Rita, on the other hand, she tries to appease Viner, too – meanwhile sometimes she’s vehemently disagreeing with her boss. As Irina Viner once remarks, looking at the seemingly calm Zaripova, who’s on the edge of blowing up: this is the kind of calm that is called a rage. It’s probably the psychologically sharpest observation of the whole movie. The many pressures on Zaripova are enough to make her snap, too, and those lashings out might have well been the most painful for Rita: the loving, always-with-you, supportive coach sometimes makes more hurting remarks than her boss.
The athlete herself, the eventual and maybe unlikely heroine, Rita Mamun spends a lot of the movie with beautiful suffering. When she is into her zone, she’s flowing like a dream. Beautiful, feather-light yet immensely strong, expressive, graceful, gentle – the excellent cinematography almost makes rhythmic gymnastics more beautiful than how it really is. The problem is that she rarely finds that zone which every top athlete is longing for, and sometimes she just seems to accept failure. She is the eternal second behind the full-bred racing machine that is her blonde friend and rival, Yana Kudryavtseva – and at times she even seems to be okay with it.
Maybe that is because rhythmic gymnastics is not the life to Rita. That does not mean she does not do her work with absolute dedication and drive, but there are higher things than sport. Family. Love. Inner peace. Harmony. And eventually, death.
‘As if practice was the most important’
– remarks a worn-out Rita at a training session, when she already knows her father is dying of terminal stage cancer. That knowledge just stiffens the air – it gives another dimension to the story and takes the tension to an almost unbearable level. The sportive story results in happy ending, the human story results in a tragic outcome – Rita wins the Olympics, but her father passes away, making the ending very bittersweet.
Especially so, because you do not see Rita in her moment of glory – due to the Olympics restrictions, the crew of Over the Limit could not work with competition material from Rio, so Rita’s crowning and finest hour never gets seen, apart from the shot on the podium. But maybe, maybe that abrupt ending fits the movie better.
Throughout the emotional rollercoaster of the movie, it is easy to forget about the amazing strength of Rita, especially because Viner’s larger-than-life presence is so overwhelming. But that beautiful, gentle, doe-eyed woman somehow gets way over her physical and mental limits, and maybe way over her own expectations as well – in the meantime, she is keeping the most important thing, her humanity intact.
She knows that yes indeed, practice is not the most important. Yes, maybe even competing is not the most important. Yes, maybe even the Olympics are not the most important. What is above all this – love, death, family, friendship, joy and sorrow, will always be more important. Rita is a heroine who dares to be imperfect in a sport that preaches and demands perfection. She’s all the more likable for it.
She fails but she gets up. She fails again and gets up again. She learns her lessons and they give a spark to each other with her coaches that results in an Olympic gold, but she stays true to herself. She’s carrying the weight of a tragedy, yet wins the biggest trophy of all, the one that most rhythmic gymnasts have only one shot at.
We see her radiantly in love and consumed by the worst fears, in rare moments of harmony and brutally harsh work, in a stunningly captured world of beautiful pain. ‘You’re not a human being, you’re an athlete’ – Zaripova points out in maybe the most intense and often-quoted line of Over the Limit. But the last word, however improbable it seems, is Mamun’s. She manages to be a top athlete in the gold-winning Russian RG machine and stays a human being, riding the highs and lows that come with it.
She looks imperfect, fallible, tormented, but very deeply, eternally humane. Way much stronger than anyone thought.
(The original version of the review appeared on Rhythmic Gymnastics)