Posts Tagged ‘Russian Arthouse’

The History of the Civil War (1921) IDFA

Dir.: Dziga Vertov; Documentary; USSR 1921, 94 min.

Exactly hundred years after The History of the Civil War was shown in a Komintern meeting in Moscow, Dziga Vertov’s historical document of the Russian Civil War (1918-1921), – believed to have been lost, apart from a twelve-minute footage – screened at IDFA, having been fully restored by Russian film historian Nikolai Izvolov, who also plans to bring back Vertov’s masterpiece Man with a Movie Camera to its original glory.

Dziga Vertov (1896-1954) is the father of modern documentary filmmaking. Using the camera as an observer, and structuring the film in the editing room, he revolutionised the genre, paying as much attention to small details as well as constructing an overview. The History starts with a sequence of devastation: decimated bridges, destroyed railway stations, burning oilfields and exploding munition factories. ‘The White Terror’, enemies of the 1918 Revolution are responsible, they range from anarchists to feudal landowners. Trotsky ends the sequence with the promise that the newly founded Red Army “Will answer the White Terror with the Red Terror of the Revolution.”

The fight back starts with the disarming of the Anarchists in 1918 Moscow. The captured opponents are (mistakenly) not afraid of their fate. In a garage, machine guns are readied, a cat strolling nonchalantly among the deadly hardware. The HQ of the counter revolutionary forces is to be found in the Spasski monastery. Comrade Nicolai Kazadanov is in charge: he poses narcissistically in front of the camera. Other Soviet military leaders liked to be seen as ‘intellectuals’, their writing desks piled high with books.

Meanwhile, the Soviet Navy deals with their own Kronstadt uprising, among the sailors we see a well dressed woman, looking into the horizon. Comrade Innocenti Kozhevnikov is in charge of a partisan unit crossing the border into Czechoslovakia. Kozhevnikov would be one of the first victims of Stalin’s purges, murdered in 1931. The defeat of Cossack general Miranov is celebrated, and the general is pardoned after the original death sentence. The ‘Makhno’ movement assists the “the young and inexperienced soldiers of the Red Army” to win the battle for Kazan. Political commissar Timofei Mikhailov is pictured in earnest discussions, he would be another of Stalin’s victim in 1928.

We watch a revolutionary Muslim unit and Trotsky greeting a revolutionary Czech unit. The leader of the Soviet Perm front is Grigori Zinovev, shot after a show trial in 1936. The Denikin front is commanded by Yakov Swerdlov, who died “suddenly of TB” in 1919, but had a city named after him by Stalin, the mastermind of this deadly irony. In between the many meetings of military officials at the different fronts, British ‘monster’ tanks are captured by the Red Army, who “would learn soon to operate them”. Meanwhile, at the Baku front Ivar Smilga (executed by Stalin in 1937), and Sergei Ordzhonikidze (driven to suicide by Stalin in same year – but getting a State Funeral), are being honoured for their bravery.

At the Caucasus Front, Sergei Kirov and Konstantin Mekhonoshin are unaware of their fates.  The former will be shot by a jealous husband in 1934, the latter executed 1938. At the front fighting the reactionary Baron Vrangel, Kliment Vorishilov and Red Cavalry founder Semyon Budyonni, are the lucky ones, both will survive Stalin’s massacre of the Old Bolshevik guard. At the very end, Trotsky, general Tukhachevski and Grigory Petrovski, who would sign the treaty of Brest-Litovsk, take the parade of the victorious army. Petrovski, who helped his master with disastrous collectivation experiments, is the the only one who would survive Stalin, with Tukhachevski murdered after a show trial together with seven other old Bolshevik military leaders.

The filmmaker Vertov would never have believed his masterpiece would one day indict Stalin for the murder of these military leaders who fought for the national base, from where he murdered millions. Ironically, Stalin manages to keep a low profile throughout, only appearing briefly in an uncovered scene. Vertov turns out to be one of the lucky survivors – had the documentary survived, Stalin would have taken his revenge on the filmmaker for not hailing him as a war hero.. AS


Glumov’s Diary | Dnevik Glumova (1923) ****

Dir: Sergei Eisenstein | Cast: Grigoriy Aleksandrov, Aleksandr Antonov, Mikail Gomorov | USSR 1923, 5’

Conceived like Orson Welles’ Too Much Johnson fifteen years later as augmenting a stage production. Before The Battleship Potemkin there was Glumov’s Diary; and before the Odessa Steps was a small flight of steps outside the Morozov mansion in Moscow in which the Proletkult theatre was currently housed and in front of which Eisenstein’s enthusiastic young cast cavorted nearly a hundred years ago (including a pipe-smoking bride arm-in-arm with a very camp-looking groom).

Representing the tiny acorn which grew into the mighty, if blighted, oak of the cinematic legacy of Sergei Eisenstein, his illustrious filmography starts with this strange-sounding title in which the young director himself puts in a brief appearance introducing himself to the camera sporting a scruffy beard and an enormous shock of hair.

By the the time he’d been harassed into an early grave a quarter of a century later he’d probably long forgotten this little squib which shows the influence of Melies rather than Kino-Pravda, since it probably contains more special effects than the rest of Eisenstein’s oeuvre put together; including the bizarre transformation of a cavorting clown into a swastika. Richard Chatten.


Aquarela (2018) *** Venice Film Festival 2018

Dir: Viktor Kossakovsky | Doc | UK | 89’

A picture tells a thousands words when it comes to climate change. And this new eco doc on the subject literally drenches us in water in its mission to drive the point home. Aquarela is  the aquatic version of Jeff Orlowski’s remarkable Chasing Ice (2012).  delivering its vital message with any dire warnings or preachy dialogue. 

Russian filmmaker Viktor Kossakovsky has shot hours of footage aiming, in a structureless but gloriously visual way, to portray the global tragedy of climate change. His vehement eco doc demonstrates how the havoc caused by the melting ice-cap in the Arctic Circle  cascades down to provoke events in Siberia’s Lake Baikal; Angel Falls in Venezuela and tornado strewn California, as nature and humanity clash in a monstrous eco-war. Put simply: while man is slowly destroying nature, the planet is hellbent on destroying us.

Cinematographer Ben Bernhard works with the latest high-tech stabilisation equipment and waterproof cameras at a rate of 96 frames per second, and these HD images record the gushing, cascading floods of glaciers, magnificent ice mountains, crashing icebergs, crumbling glaciers, tumbling waterfalls and fierce waves that mercilessly bring to mind Nicholas Monsarrat’s novel The Cruel Sea. 

Accompanied by a pounding electronic score that lends a certain chaotic gravitas, there are moments that will remain seared to the memory. The film would work more effectively with a clearer narrative arc and tighter editing despite its slim running time And although some of the sequences are over-played –  this is an engaging and informative film. MT


The Man Who Surprised Everyone (2018) **** IFFR Rotterdam 2019

Dir: Natasha Merkulova, Aleksey Chupov | Cast: Evgeniy Tsiganov, Natalya Kudryashowa, Yuriy Kuznetsov, Vasiliy Popov, Pavel Maykov, Aleksey Filimonov, Elena Voronchikhina, Maksim Vitorgan | Drama | Russia Estonia France | 105’

Russian directing duo Natasha Merkulova and Aleksey Chupov tackle a thorny subject with deftness in this classically styled and  surprisingly moving arthouse drama that had its premiere in the Orizzonti sidebar at Venice Film Festival 2018

LGBT issues are still viewed with hostility back home in Russia but the leads are completely convincing in their subtlely nuanced and solemn portrayal of a modern couple coping with extremely challenging conditions in a remote rural outpost.

Egor is a respectable family man who we first meet navigating his boat along the Siberian Taiga where he works as a forest ranger looking out for poachers. He and his wife Natalia are expecting their second child when Egor discovers he has terminal cancer but keeps his wife in the dark about his imminent death. But this is not the only secret the thoughtful middle-aged man harbours, and the filmmakers gradually draw us in establishing the couple’s joint and several feelings of joy for her, and mounting grief and unease for him: Egor must bear alone the double burden of his cancer trauma and his nascent sexual yearnings that will certainly require his wife’s forbearance. When he tells Natasha she persuades Egor to seek further help in looking for a cure. But no traditional medicine or shamanic magic can save him. Finally, left with no other option, he makes a desperate attempt to escape the reality of his death by channelling his feelings into self-identifying as a woman with initial alarm to his close community, followed by anger, disbelief and acceptance by Natasha, and we feel for both of them. His family and the local society now have to accept his new self.

Moody rain-soaked settings and subdued interiors add to the feeling of angst and quiet desperation as the couple struggle on trapped by poverty and Natasha’s ageing and ailing father in a scenario that will be feel familiar to many.

This is a grim and provocatively complex tale that needs clever handling and one that could have gone severely awry with disastrous consequences without the skill of a competent directing team. But instead clever scripting, skilful handling of the complex issues at stake and sensitive performances make for an absorbing feature and one with considerable dramatic heft as we wait for the startling denouement that requires a certain leap of faith but one that feels plausible and satisfying in the circumstances.MT


Jumpman (2018) Podbrosy **** Russian Film Week 2018

Dir.: Ivan I. Tverdovsky; Cast: Denis Vlasenko, Anne Slyu, Daniil Steklov; Russia/ROI/France/ Lithuania 2018, 87 min.

Ivan I. Tverdovsky follows up his zany Zoology with a darker feature, another harsh critique of Putin’s Russia. Very much in the mould of Loveless, Jumpman is a portrait of callous exploitation, the young victim literally sold by his mother to perform life-threatening stunts, just to fill her pockets and those of her cronies.

Sixteen years ago Oksana posted her newborn Denis through the baby-hatch of an orphanage where he has lived ever since, handicapped by a rare disease, congenital analgesia, which affects his ability to feel physical pain, and needs to be medically controlled. Now, forbidden from taking care of her son, Oksana (Slyu) tricks the orphanage staff, literally kidnapping little Denis (Vlasenko) and taking him home. It soon emerges that Oksana’s motive is anything but motherly. Denis does not fee pain when injured (his mates in the orphanage played some cruel games with him), and is trained to jump on cars so his mother’s friends can extort cash from the driver. First in line is Denis’ ‘instructor’ policeman Kusnetzov (Steklov), who drives a police vehicle alongside the one earmarked for the ‘accident’, and is first on the scene when Denis lays motionless on the ground. Kusnetzovs’s mother is a doctor at the hospital where Denis is taken by an ambulance crew (also on the make). But the most profitable jobs go to Judge Olga and the bribed defence lawyer. The driver is forced to pay up a huge sum of money – and Denis gets hardly a penny, after everyone else has taken their share. At home his mother treats him more like a lover, running around half naked in a drunken state, even trying to seduce him. That all changes after Denis puts his foot down –  and this leaves only one solution.

Jumpman is a portrait of a society corrupt on every level, a society where the most vulnerable victims are treated like commodities – whether they are rich, poor or just disenfranchised.. When Denis finally quits, Kusnetzov spits in his face: “We’ll find another one, the city is full of trash like you.” AS



Fragment of an Empire (1929) Oblomok Imperii ***** LFF 2018

Writer/Dir: Fridrikh Ermler (1898-1976) | Writer: Ekaterina Vinogradskiya | Drama | Russia | 96′

A young man who lost his memory during WWI seems to regains it many years later in Friedrich Ermler’s intriguingly cinematic silent drama. Elegantly rendered in glowing black and white Fragment of an Empire is often referred to as the most important film in Soviet Cinema. It certainly makes compelling viewing as a socio-political satire and outstanding critique of the soviet regime, all showcased in an inventively avant-garde arthouse drama that explores the process of remembrance through the medium of film.

The central character Filimonov (Feodor Nikitin) experiences the brash new postwar Soviet world of 1928, through his pre-war Tsarist-era eyes, a decade after WWI began. St Petersburg has now become Soviet Leningrad. The film opens in a stable where a dog who has just given birth to a large litter of puppies. This heart-rending sequence ends with the dog being shot as she looks up with a pleading vulnerability at a group of men who have discovered a soldier’s hiding place.

Made in the same year as Dziga Vertov’s energetic documentary Man with a Movie Camera, this is thematically a more ambitious and daring film that sets out to contemplate the social implications of the postwar period in Russia and to examine memory, through an entirely fresh perspective. Changing attitudes in the aftermath to hostilities have given rise to a new social and political landscape.

The hero (Fyodor Nikitin) gradually remembers he was married and sets out in his Cossack hat and overcoat across a landscape dominated by farming to find his wife (Lyudmila Semyonova) in his hometown of St Petersburg. In ten years the changes have been seismic. Large building soar up into the skyline, where once where small houses. He is completely dismayed by massive statues of Lenin and mesmerised by women wearing short skirts in the tram. The passing traffic bewilders him as he spins round trying to gain his bearings. Eventually he discovers his workplace has been taken over and his wife has re-married. His inquiries are regarded with derision by people he once new and trusted. The frenetic final act recalls Vertov’s film of the same year with its frenetic rhythms but the symbolism here is a sinister parody of Sovietism. MT

Fridrikh Ermler’s Fragment of an Empire has been described by Bryony Dixon as “a powerful personal story and the critique it allows of the revolution as seen by a soldier stuck in a Tsarist past. The film opens in the chaos of a bloody battle in 1914 and follows with an extraordinary evocation of the main protagonist’s returning memory. As played by regular Ermler lead Fiodor Nikitin, his response to the social changes he sees is both moving and politically astute”.

SCREENING ON 19 OCTOBER | BFI SOUTHBANK | Live musical accompaniment by Stephen Horne and Frank Bokius | Restoration by San Francisco Silent Film Festival and EYE Filmmuseum in partnership with Gosfilmofond of Russia


The Cranes are Flying | Letyat zhuravli (1957) ***** | Karlovy Vary 2018

Dir.: Mikhail Kalatozov; Cast: Tatjana Samoylava, Aleksey Batalov, Vasily Merkuryev, Aleksandr Shvorin; USSR 1957, 95 min

“That’s love – a little shared insanity”

THE CRANES ARE FLYING portrays a dark time with such playful elegance and grace. Its everlasting themes of love, war, and courageous sacrifice run through a story of longing that turns on the simple premise of a letter not read. This was to become the same plot device in Katatozov’s Letter Never Sent that followed in 1960.

Mikhail Kalatosov (1903-1973) led Soviet cinema back to the lyricism of Pudovkin and Eisenstein, and away from the hollow realism and personality cult of the Stalin era in a drama that used a purely cinematic idiom that accentuated graceful visual composition. The director owes much to the collaboration of DoP Sergei Urussevsky and editor Marya Timofeyeva – even though the stunningly beautiful actress Tatjana Samoylava in the centre role of Veronika got most of the attention at the Cannes Film Festival in 1958, where The Cranes won the Golden Palme and Samoylava Best Actress.

Boris (Batalov) and Veronika are deliriously in love at the outset of the German invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941. Boris secretly joins the Red Army, to defend the Motherland, but is soon declared missing at the front. Veronika does not learn of the news until after her parents are killed in an air raid, when she moves in with her Boris’s father Fyodor (Merkuryev), a surgeon and his brother Mark (Shvorin). Mark declares his love for Veronica, and the shock of her loss sees agreeing to marry Mark after he rapes her during a bomb blast. As the windows shatter in on the couple, Tatiana walks through the broken glass, the scene morphing into the mud-drenched battlefield where we witness Boris’ demise, his final moments cascades down a staircase with Tatiana dressed in white for their wedding day. When Fyodor learns that Mark has bribed the authorities to avoid being drafted, he throws him out of the house. Veronica’s happiness turns to misery, but Samoylova’s face remains as ravishingly beautiful in anguish as in pleasure. Saving a child from the wheels of a military vehicle she devotes herself to his care moment, but never gives up on Boris when she is finally given the letter hidden in the toy squirrel that Boris’ left for her before his departure. Only at the end of the war does she finally accept that Boris is dead, giving the flowers she brought for him, to the returning soldiers.

Kalatosov (I am Cuba, Letter Never SenT) breaks many taboos of the Stalin period – where it was unthinkable to admit that citizens bribed officials so that they could avoid going to the front. Rape, even in this poetic form, was never shown before. And a heroine, who even seriously thought of suicide  – never mind being a second away from it – had no place in a cinema throttled to death by censorship.

Urussevsky’s often handheld camera is extremely mobile, and his moody black-and-white images depicting a private and public world in chaos are unforgettable. Dialogue is spare but speaks volumes. Samoylava’s heartfelt acting is never sentimental, and Kalatosov helps the re-birth of Soviet cinema with glorious scenes depicting the first hour after the revolution. Without any exaggeration, The Cranes  deservedly buried Stalinist film culture on the muckheap of history, where it belongs. AS/MT


Dovlatov (2018) * * * | Berlinale 2018

Dir: Aleksey German Jr. | Cast: Artur Beschastny, Danila Kozlovsky, Milan Maric, Anton Shagin | 126′

Aleksey German Jr certainly knows how to create a stylish film. Under Electric Clouds was awarded a Silver Bear for Artistic Contribution for Cinematography in 2015, so it is a shame his latest offering about the literary heroes of Russia is another gorgeous cover to a rather empty book.

Set in 1971, it follows the festivities surrounding Leningrad’s October Revolution two decades after the death of Stalin, and is seen from the perspective of budding writer Sergei Dovlatov who, subsequently became a well known author read by millions. Here played by Milan Maric he has moved back in with his mother and is experiencing recurring dreams about Leonid Brezhnev. Communism is very much alive and kicking. But sadly, like a glossy magazine with juicy headlines, this filmic foray never really mines the dramatic potential of the weighty themes and characters it attempts to celebrate.

For all its aspirations Dovlatov is a pseudo intellectual schmooze that glories in an unknown breezy jazz score in the style of Krysztoff Komeda and some soigné cinematography, never quite convinces us of its characters’ desperate misery over their failure to get published. Łukasz Żal’s roving camera haunts the smoky venues where the literati glide endlessly engaged in alcohol-fuelled debate, but we feel little for their plight as real people. We’re expected to oh and ah as Pushkin, Dostoyevsky and Brodsky parade before us but despite their eventual acknowledgement as literary geniuses here they feel here like cardboard cutouts in a school play. Well-clothed and fed, they just swing around Moscow like a group of disenchanted uni students bemoaning their lack of a publisher. One or two dramatic moments puncture the day to day literary lock-down of these writers’ bland existence, but there are no standout performances to speak of: even Dovlatov remains a colourless cypher despite his intellectual pretensions, fecklessly neglects his kid and his intelligent wife (Helena Sujecka). An opportunity to lift the lid on the real lives and characters of these literary giants and the importance of their work has been sadly missed. MT

BERLINALE 15-25 FEBRUARY 2018 | SILVER BEAR for Outstanding Artistic Contribution | Costume and production Design

The Banishment | Izgnanie (2007) | bluray release

Dir: Andrey Zvyagintsev | Cast: Marie Bonnevie, Konstantin Lavronenko, Alexander Baluev | Russia | Drama | 118′ 

After critical acclaim with THE RETURN, Russian director Andrey Zvyagintsev’s second feature kicks off with a gritty opening sequence that gives the early impression of an edgy and sinuous thriller with a potential for brutal violence. Not so. What we actually get is an unsettling social drama based loosely on a story by William Saroyan entitled The Laughing Matter.

Set in an indiscriminate time and place (could be the seventies, certainly Northerly, could be somewhere in Russia, it is actually Moldova) it has a ‘retro’ feel although we never get the answers to these questions. But this enigmatic quality and an ominous soundtrack adds to the suspence of this unusual film. The story centres on Vera, a timid and insecure mother (played by the Norwegian born actress Marie Bonnevie) and her relationship with Alexander and his brother Mark. It follows on from the tragic events of one summer when they take their two children to the country dacha for a family holiday, and certainly to lay low, although we never find out why. The general mood is one of tension and impending doom that soon descends into bewilderment as the sprawling story unfolds. Overlong and at times confusing, this is certainly not the masterpiece it led us to believe it would in the opening sequence, it is nevertheless a film that begs to be noticed for its cinematic impact and well-crafted performances. Meredith Taylor ©


Durak (The Fool) 2014 | New East Cinema Series

The Barbican is delighted to present New East Cinema, a new bi-monthly film series accompanied by ScreenTalks, which begin in April 2016. The series is a collaboration between the Barbican and Calvert 22 Foundation, and is curated by The New Social, a cultural collective bringing contemporary cinema from Eastern Europe and beyond to London. It looks across the wide expanse of land that stretches from Eastern Europe, the Baltic countries and the Balkans, through to Russia and Central Asia to uncover the most thought-provoking, daring and vibrant cinema coming from today’s ‘New East’. The series begins with a screening of Yury Bykov’s hard-hitting portrait of contemporary Russia, The Fool (Durak).

Director/writer: Yury Bykov
Cast: Artem Bystrov, Natalia Surkova, Yury Tsurilo, Boris Nevzorov

Russia Drama 116mins

As recently suggested by Andrei Zvyagintsev’s barnstormingly brilliant LEVIATHAN, contemporary artistic renditions of Russia and its current socio-political landscape are perhaps all the better for being so ludicrously overblown. Yury Bykov’s DURAK (THE FOOL) is another hysterical snapshot of a decrepit state, as allegorised by a nine-story apartment block that’s on the verge of wholesale collapse due to four decades of administrative neglect. Dedicated to Alexei Balabanov, who died during last year’s Cannes Film Festival (where Bykov’s second feature THE MAJOR was competing in Critic’s Week), DURAK received much applause from a capacity audience this week at Locarno Film Festival, where it received its international premiere.

Humble plumber Dima Nikitin (Artem Bystrov) lives with his parents, wife and son in a cramped apartment. When he is called one evening to another block of flats in a district across town, his otherwise routine inspection of a burst pipe reveals an ominously sized crack in an interior bearing wall. Rushing to check the exterior, he notices two fissures going up the side of the dilapidated dwelling, and, after some quick bedtime arithmetic, reckons that due to its height and the degree to which it is tilting, the building is likely to fall down at any moment. Though the night’s late for ordinary folk, it’s very young for the town’s top brass, who are midway through celebrating the housing chief’s 50th birthday when Dima shows up to warn them of the impending disaster.

Bykov’s fanciful tale, of a lowly repairman taking on the local authorities on behalf of a community of disenfranchised drunks and their long-suffering wives, begins in a grippingly hyperreal fashion, making no qualms about the devastated and devastating domestic plight of the disparate working community at its centre. The long, choreographed take with which the film begins—in which an alcoholic’s daily rant to his wife and daughter escalates into horrible violence—lends a believable brutality that’s only magnified by the defeat with which the wife, tending to her bruised and swollen mouth, decides not to file charges on account that her husband needs to attend work the next day in order to secure a monthly bonus.

On the bottom rungs, volatility is never too far away. Even Dima’s situ is far from harmonious, as evinced by an amusingly claustrophobic dinner scene that boils over when his worrisome mother picks one trivial quibble with her husband too many. Though she’s quick to call Dima’s dad a fool, it’s her son who emerges as the film’s eponymous would-be hero, an honest working man who dares to address the insurmountable undertaking of saving and bettering the lives of those belonging to his own hapless class—a mission undone by communal indifference as well as in-fighting at the top.

In Russia, perhaps, absurdity is the only truth. Though on a storytelling level very little of this remains plausible, Dima’s Sisyphean task is cued by a smaller, perhaps forced metaphor early on, in which he and his dad repeatedly mend a broken bench outside their building. DURAK’s hyperrealism proves unsustainable, bleeding in the course of its proceedings into a routine symbolism. In some ways, things unfold like a more cynical update of HIGH NOON (1951)—in which Gary Cooper tried in vain to rally a town together against oncoming villains. Elsewhere, the gangsterism eventually displayed by the politicians is anticipated when Dima, perhaps channelling Robert De Niro in THE GODFATHER PART II (1974), assures two fellow plumbers that he’ll talk with the bigwigs tomorrow…

Though Dima is far from a card-carrying communist, we’re clearly meant to interpret the class consciousness he shows vague signs of as a doomed affair: if he’s not shot by the local government, he might just be beaten to death by those he’s trying to save. Such portrayals are not unproblematic, of course, but neither are they wholly inaccurate: organising any oppressed group of people in a struggle against their own circumstances is often a complicated matter. Still, Bykov’s depiction of a stunted, squalor-ridden community too frequently lacks compassion: indeed, like its self-preserving politicians, the film itself shuns these people to the margins for large amounts of its time—and having them all take a frantic, crazy-sounding Dima on his word might be one narrative convenience too far. MICHAEL PATTISON


Barbican Cinema, Barbican Centre
The New Social presents New East Cinema:
The Fool (Durak) + ScreenTalk
Wed 27 April 6:30pm, Cinema 2 
Box Office 0845 120 7527


Pioneer Heroes (2015) | Berlinale 2015

Director|Writer: Natalya Kudryashova

Cast: Aleksei Mitin, Daria Moroz, Natalya Kudryashova

116mins  Drama, Russian Federation

Writer\Director Natalya Kudryashova’s debut drama PIONEER HEROES, in which she also performs, sets out with good intentions to be a sort of Russian BOYHOOD. Sadly, the result is a muddled documentary-style piece that overstays its welcome, despite some convincing and even touching performances from the assemble cast.

Kudryashova follows the lives of three Russian kids born in the Soviet twilight years: Andrey, Olga and Katya, who attend the ‘Vladimir Ilyich Lenin’ youth academy in the late 80s, until the present today. As kiddies, still wet behind the ears and full of excitement and patriotic enthusiasm, they are desperate to do the right thing by their country and we see them pledging allegiance to organisation. The only one who stands out from the crowd is Andrey – refusing pointblank to sing a solo in the choir, he later grows into a troublesome and frustrated young man, unhappily dating the endearingly gentle Katya. As little girls, Katya and Olga take their soviet origins very seriously, Olga even informing the authorities about her father’s crude attempts at home-brewing when she happens to a watch a political propaganda broadcast on TV, exhorting comrades to snitch on illegal  bootleggers.

It emerges that the bright aspirations of the Soviet Union of their childhood has failed them in adulthood: their immense pride for their country as kids simply does not prepare them for mundane modern life, leaving them saddled with expectations that simply to not deliver success, fulfillment or even security in the sober reality of contemporary Russia. A qualified actress, Olga is receiving psychotherapy for depression, PR girl Katya lacks the self esteem as a young woman to command any respect or attention from Andrey whose thoughts are completely focused on making headway in his political career, rather than enjoying his relationship in their upmarket modern apartment in Moscow. On his way to a business meeting he manages to help out in a unfolding tragedy and wonders whether his intervention is really what it means to be ‘a hero’ in modern times. This is a sad and depressing view of today’s Russia from a disenchanted and desperate voice that would make Stalin turn in his grave. MT


A Long and Happy Life (2013) 57th BFI London Film Festival

Despite the ostentatious wealth of Moscow’s elite, two films at the London Film Festival show us that modern life for ordinary Russians is still hard-going and hasn’t change much since the times of Dostoevsky. Boris Khlebnikov’s A LONG AND HAPPY LIFE is actually wishful thinking.  Shot in a cinema verite-style on a hand-held camera by Pavel Kostomarov this  low-budget indie drama is the tragic tale of a struggling middle class employer.

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Alexander Yatsenko plays Alex Sergeevich, or Sasha, to his friends (and he hasn’t got many), a decent employer who has given up his city life to embrace the great outdoors and running a rural farm by a fast-flowing river in northern Russia. When faced with a compulsory purchase order from the local council  he eventually decides to take the money and run but when his poor farm workers beg him to support of their liveliehoods and keep the farm, he has a change of heart and with their support, he prepares to stand up to the authorities.

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His on/off girlfriend Anya (Anna Kotova) has ideas to lure him back to the city, where she works in local government but he feels a strong responsibility to his workers who appear to need him more until they start to show their true colours.

As typical Russian films go, A LONG AND HAPPY LIFE, is short and brutal but nevertheless wrought with human confrontation and emotional pain.  The change that takes place in Sasha’s stance towards his business venture, seen as a tonal shift to sudden melodrama, does feel somewhat unbelievable though given his profile as a businessman. Worthwhile but unconvincing. MT



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