On April Fool’s Day 1989, Leonid Loktev changed without warning into another person. He awoke that Saturday still familiar to his wife, Larisa, who like him was a computer programmer/analyst, born and educated in the Soviet Union and now living comfortably in Colorado. Photographs give evidence of the man she saw across the breakfast table: 50 years old, outgoing, musical, a bit of a ham actor. But by the end of the day, someone unknowable to Larisa had taken up residence in her husband’s body. A car had struck him as he crossed the street after visiting a garage sale.

Photographs also give evidence of the event. You can see skid marks to the left of the road’s center line; a dent in the Ford’s left front fender; a spider web of shattered glass in the windshield, directly in front of the driver. When the person who was scraped from the pavement emerged from his coma, Larisa understood she could continue to call him Leonid only for convenience’ sake. She could not recognize this man; but neither could she abandon him. And so she, too, changed without warning. She became the full-time caretaker for a stranger.

Moment of Impact is a quiet but mountingly intense study of Larisa’s life seven years later, and of the life of the filmmaker: the Loktevs’ daughter Julia, who was a 20-year-old college student at the time of the accident. In the summer of 1996 Julia came home from New York for two long visits, during which she recorded her parents and tried to locate herself in relation to them. Given the extraordinary intimacy of her project, she chose to act as a one-woman crew, first setting the lights for each shot, then shooting in black-and-white with a Hi-8 camcorder while taking sound by wedging the microphone under her arm.

To a certain extent, she staged the scenes. You might notice, for example, that when Larisa runs into her room after an emotional outburst and flings herself facedown on the bed, the camera is already in place, waiting for her. To a certain extent, Julia also provoked scenes, or tried to. In one nerve-racking sequence, you see her go to the stereo in the living room and put on a recording titled 75 Spectacular Sound Effects, while her father sits on the couch, bathed in a spot of light. You wait for the recording to get to the inevitable sound of screeching brakes and crumpling metal; but when the time comes, Leonid continues to sit in silence. His only response–if that’s what it is–amounts to an extra blink of the eyes. Within its artful framework, despite the provocations, Moment of Impact keeps running into such stubborn realities, which resist drama, or even interpretation.

The film begins simply, if busily, with the sound of an alarm. Larisa Loktev awakens (the camera is already by her bedside, ready to catch her in close-up) and rolls onto her feet in the harsh morning light. We see her washing up before the bathroom mirror, doing her exercises in the backyard, then poring over the Wall Street Journal while she listens to financial news on the radio and eats breakfast. So far, she might be any single, sternly bustling woman, focused on practical tasks and therefore tolerant of a certain clutter around her.

Then the camera follows Larisa into another room, where she awakens the balding, long-faced man lying in bed. “Do you have to go to work?” she asks in Russian. “Nyet,” the man whispers. “Have to fight for your place in the sun?” “Nyet.” “Not a bad life,” she continues, always in Russian, as she begins to dress Leonid. The camera, placed next to his feet, gives a sloping, funnel-like perspective on Larisa as she tunes the radio to a station with bouncy, lilting Mexican music–something that might give her energy to lace Leonid’s shoes, push his legs up and down, ease him into a wheelchair for his morning wipe-down. As she pulls off Leonid’s T-shirt, she and her husband become cutout figures against a sheer black background. As the washcloth moves across his chest, the screen fills with the image of his flesh, an impenetrable curtain stretching across the frame.

Moment of Impact returns periodically to this morning ritual. You get a sense of days passing, with minimal variations in the routine. Today there’s blues piano on the radio instead of ranchero music. Today, as her method of eliciting a response, Larisa calls over her shoulder while lacing the shoes, “Any signs of life back there?” You wonder how she tolerates the fight against Leonid’s inertia, day after day, since you, as a viewer, can’t take much of it. So the film doesn’t give you much; only enough to set up a rhythm, against which the mysteries and exasperations can be played out.

The mystery: Who is Leonid Loktev? In a series of scenes shot in the backyard, we hear Julia’s voice off-camera as she tries to coax responses from him, or just an acknowledgment of her presence. “Dad, look at me,” she insists (also in Russian); but his eyes, turned away from her, remain as blank as two mirrors sunk in shadow. “Are you mad at me?” Julia asks. “Did I do something to hurt you?” He doesn’t seem to hear. But when told to say “Hi,” he whispers it–then whispers it again and again and again, drooling slightly as he speaks.

Is Leonid a kind of automaton? Unfortunately for Larisa and Julia, the answer isn’t that simple. In one of these backyard interviews, Julia asks Leonid to touch her. Her hand pokes into the frame, coming from behind the camera, and Leonid, slowly and unsteadily, manages to reach out and intertwine his fingers with hers. Although his expression doesn’t change, the gesture requires so much determination from him that you feel a physical shock as the hands touch. You get another kind of shock later, when Julia asks what he thinks of her film. “It’s shit,” he suddenly whispers.

Leonid’s brief moment of exasperation, conveyed impassively, is nothing compared with Larisa’s growing fury. Twice she declares on camera that “I can’t do this”–a statement she might well make about life with Leonid, but that she applies to her participation in the film.

Once, in the backyard, when Julia is trying to get Leonid to make a drawing or write her name, Larisa refuses to cooperate any longer. “I stopped trying to do this a long time ago,” she says. “It drives me crazy,” and she storms off. The second outburst, which is still angrier, erupts during one of Larisa’s nightly dialogues with Julia. Periodically, the film gives an overhead shot of mother and daughter lying side by side in a rumpled bed. Julia asks questions–Do you miss him as he was? Would you remarry if you could?–and Larisa answers, usually with sharp, bitter wit. But late in the film, Larisa explodes. “I can’t do this. It drives me crazy. You stick your finger in,” she shouts at Julia, “and you twist it around ten times.”

What a relief it must have been to Julia, to be screamed at by a parent. Like any child, she needed to provoke; and in making Moment of Impact, that need became nothing less than a way of connecting with life itself. To borrow a phrase from Larisa, the anger Julia elicited was her “proof of existence,” a proof she could no longer get from Leonid. But to elicit that response, Julia had to mimic the quasi-limbo of her father. Like any filmmaker, she became unreachable behind the camera. What an affront it must have been to Larisa to see her daughter, too, turn a blank, glassy stare on her.

Intense, immersive, claustrophobic and obsessive, Moment of Impact is a film about the impenetrabilities we all run up against in family life, only more so. Surprising, inventive and canny, it’s also about the emotional distance that exists between the subject of any documentary and the filmmaker–or for that matter between the subject and the audience. In some films that distance amounts to an imbalance of power, which the documentarian or the viewer is willing to exploit. Here, Julia Loktev makes the shrinking and yawning of the gap into a kind of drama–the only drama possible for people whose lives are now all anticlimax.

I’m tempted to call Moment of Impact the best black-and-white, Russian-language experimental film ever made in Colorado. But since it’s opening in New York City this month–there’s a two-week run at Anthology Film Archives–I’d rather compare it to the movie everyone wants to see. Maybe there will be good reason to be excited about Star Wars; it’s too soon to tell. But while the crowds are lining up to visit that galaxy far away, you should know that Moment of Impact is one of this year’s rare films from Earth.