Valerii Akhadov: Greenhouse Effect (Parnikovyi effekt), 2005

reviewed by Stephen Hutchings© 2006

Valerii Akhadov’s latest film has nothing whatsoever to do with global warming. Its title, as quirkily ironic as the film itself, refers rather to the dwelling afforded its homeless hero in exchange for washing the floors of a large Moscow greenhouse every morning. But nor, in essence, is Greenhouse Effect an exercise in documenting the plight of Moscow’s new, post-Soviet underclass. Indeed, the way in which the title playfully misleads the viewer into thinking that s/he will be presented with an attempt at addressing a societal problem of world significance, only to “disappoint” her/him, is indicative of the sensibility adopted by the film in general.

The hero, a 12-year old boy played with real verve by Aleksandr Iashin, goes by the name of “Mute.” This is because he earns part of his keep as a false mute begging in a train station, working in collaboration with a real mute from whom he borrows realia to lend authenticity to his deception and with whom he shares his takings. The boy’s enterprising approach to life, forced upon him by circumstances which are never properly revealed, leads him also to help a car-wash crew with their tasks at a local garage in exchange for a morning shower under the garage hose, and, again, a share of the takings. But Mute is not merely earning money to support his hand-to-mouth existence as one of Moscow’s countless vagabonds. He is also saving to travel with his best friend, the Greek, to live with the latter’s grandparents in a house in Greece situated by a hill planted with olive trees. The Greek, however, is seriously sick with an unspecified illness and is required to visit the hospital regularly for injections.

The routine of Mute’s precarious, yet curiously unoppressive, life is interrupted by the arrival at the station of Rita (sensitively played by Elena Poliukhova), another of the generation of forlorn teenagers for whom the bright and glittering opportunities of the New Russia seem far distant. Rita loses her suitcase and, with it, the address of the boyfriend she is supposed to be staying with. Mute decides to help her by offering her shelter at “his” greenhouse. Little by little, a relationship develops between the two youngsters, one tinged, at least on Mute’s side, with a hint of nascent sexuality (he peeps voyeuristically at her taking a shower at the car wash). Rita reveals that her desperation to find her boyfriend is motivated by the fact that their brief liaison left her pregnant. Mute resolves to find him and, after helping Rita to recollect the address, they locate the correct flat, only to find that it has been long empty. Tragedy then strikes when Mute learns that the Greek has died, and his life seems to descend irreversibly into a spiral of misfortunes when he is arrested by the police for his illegal exploits. But the initially sullen Rita has by now become devoted to her new friend and the film ends, optimistically, if rather improbably, with her tracking down the house on the olive hill in Greece, promising to lay the foundations of the new life that Mute and the Greek had planned together.

Although Akhadov’s lineage as a director stretches back into the pre-Gorbachev period, the majority of his best-known films date from after 1985. His previous work includes It is Not Advisable to Offend Women (Zhenshchin obizhat' ne rekomenduetsia, 2000), The Private Life of a Queen (Lichnaia zhizn' korolevy, 1993), The Look (Vzgliad, 1988), and Family Secrets (Semeinye tainy, 1983). He has always been more interested in universal, “human” issues than in socio-political polemic or avant-garde posturing, and Greenhouse Effect is no exception, though Rotislav Perumov’s cinematography, which operates under the self-imposed constraints of the “old” square-like 1:33 format, has a serene, surreal quality that lends the dilapidated Moscow in which much of the action takes place a curious and beguiling beauty previously unseen on the post-Soviet screen. Moreover, the recurring cinematic device of having Mute filmed from a vehicle moving in the opposite direction reinforces the sense of distance between the boy and the city, and renders him seemingly invisible to the “real-life” protagonists of contemporary, post-Soviet Moscow which recedes silently into the background. And Akhadov’s subtly tongue-in-cheek direction works hand-in-hand with the offbeat cinematography (and with Sysoev’s haunting, lapidary piano score). Thus, the viewer is made to wait the length of the film to appreciate the relevance of the seemingly incongruous opening shots of the film depicting the lush exoticism of a subtropical landscape. And when the story closes with the dream-like shots of Rita’s arrival in Greece, the film’s title acquires a new motivation: just as a greenhouse furnishes an artificial home for tropical plants that could not otherwise survive, so the unbroken spirit of human friendship (of Mute and the Greek, and of Rita and Mute) harbours, amidst the hardship and heartbreak endured by Moscow’s abandoned children, artificial (because, ultimately, unrealisable) aspirations for a future full of warmth and beauty. Akhadov’s wistful acknowledgement that the ending he has conjured is not to be taken at face value, thus, rescues the film from mawkish sentimentalism.

It is, indeed, the strength of Mute’s passionate concern for the fate of the Greek, and the maturing of his relationship with Rita, which Akhadov places at the center of his narrative. The boy’s allegorical anonymity (and that of his male friend) situate Greenhouse Effect in the realm of universalist fable rather than that of post-Soviet cinema verité. Nor, accordingly, does causality or explanation form an important part of Akhadov’s cinematic value system. Apart from eschewing an account of the reasons for Mute’s predicament as a homeless child, or Greek’s illness, or the disappearance of Rita’s boyfriend, the film leaves the viewer guessing about the outcome of Rita’s pregnancy, of Mute’s encounter with the authorities, and of Rita’s attempts to begin a new life for both of them. For this reason, the action in Greenhouse Effect appears to take place in a not-quite-parallel world, distinct from the consumerist bustle, the excessive wealth, the criminality, the grime, and the desperation that characterise the new Russia; yet also both part of and liable to intersect with it. In this it bears more than a passing resemblance to an earlier film—Valerii Todorovskii’s Land of the Deaf (Strana glukhikh, 1998).

Greenhouse Effect should, finally, also be seen in the same context as, and perhaps in dialogue with, a series of post-Soviet films featuring children who lack, or seemingly lack, one or other parent figure (usually, though not always, the father): The Thief (Vor; dir. Pavel Chukhrai, 1997); The Return (Vozvrashchenie; dir. Andrei Zviagintsev, 2004); Koktebel' (Boris Khlebnikov and Aleksei Popogrebskii, 2005), to name but three. Their attempts to come to terms with, or substitute for, that lack inevitably (often deliberately, sometimes misleadingly) invite readings that transpose the complex relationship with the father figure (absent or present) onto the relationship between contemporary Russia and its varyingly suppressed totalitarian past. That Akhadov has chosen to erase all trace of either parent in his boy hero can be seen as a bold effort to transcend the obsession with the past which has, arguably, beset Russian cinema since 1991. Alternatively, it might be viewed as an escapist’s refusal to engage with root causes, or properly to follow through the logic of plot lines, which ultimately renders the film no more than an (albeit self-aware and aesthetically pleasing) piece of post-Soviet whimsy.

Stephen Hutchings (University of Surrey, UK)


Greenhouse Effect, Russia, 2005
Color, 93 minutes
Director: Valeri Akhadov
Screenplay: Oleg Antonov
Cinematography: Rotislav Perumov
Editor: Tat'iana Mushtakova
Music: Daris Sysoev
Cast: Elena Poliakova, Aleksandr Iashin, Aleksandr Korshunov, Irina Loseva, Pavel
Semenikhin, Evgenii Kharlanov
Producer: Sergei Piremov
Production: Tsentr natsional'nogo fil'ma, with support from the Federal Agency for Culture and Cinema

 

Valerii Akhadov: Greenhouse Effect (Parnikovyi effekt), 2005

reviewed by Stephen Hutchings© 2006

Updated: 30 Mar 06