Forward to the Past, or: What kind of Millennium has begun?

By Nina Tsyrkun (Moscow)

According to its organizers, the Russian program of the 30th Moscow International Film Festival (MIFF) turned out to be as eclectic as Russian cinema today. Moreover, it included none of the important films that had already obtained international recognition or had been widely released in cinemas. Nevertheless, the program reflects at least one important point: the shift of generations, the replacement of the “old guard” with a group of debutants who, in relation to film production, occupy almost half of the sector, although their number does not allow us to speak about a certain “new wave”, that might be characterized by a common style or direction. Nevertheless, for this survey I've tried to choose the most representative films, which will enable us to develop a more or less precise impression of today's condition of Russian cinema.

Ruins of the empire and new patriotism

The “fear of reality” is the diagnosis that critics put on modern Russian cinema. “Why do you make films about the past rather than the present?”—this question was put to the young director Aleksei German Jr., and he gave the simple answer: “I'm not ready.” That is, he is ready to set his films in the distant beginning of the 20th century, during the Second World War, or during the 1960s, but not to make films about what he sees with his own eyes and experiences together with his generation. Reflecting upon what has already been reflected upon, without any special pressure to stylize a film in the spirit of a pseudo-chronicle retro, is of course much easier and in many ways more advantageous than to immerse oneself in a crude reality and search for an adequate language to express it. Hence such false nostalgic digressions “back in the USSR”, emanating a genuine melancholy for the past for a long time, whose place has been taken by the r e-branding of external symbols of the epoch. Significantly, in this respect, MIFF's Russian program included the film of the Director General of the country's main film studio, Mosfil'm, Karen Shakhnazarov's The Vanished Empire (Ischeznuvshaia imperiia, 2008), whose genre is defined as “romantic tragicomedy.” From the skilled and thoughtful Shakhnazarov, who had already addressed the theme of destruction of the “first empire”—of imperial Russia—in the film A Rider named Death (Vsadnik po imeni Smert', 2004), one might expect a sufficiently profound and reflective judgment of a really serious and important decade: the theme of the end of the empire with all its tragic overtones, which has not even approximately been mastered in cinema (as, by the way, also in literature). The result is a soap-operatic melodrama in the thick jungle of Socialist Realist posters, of a mumbling, aged General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev on a black-and-white TV, of glorious marches and of disco tunes.

Directors of the older generation address the past with a sense of confusion due to the blurring of habitual moral values, with a certain discomfort due to the absence of moral support that they would like to revive. In Russia directors would always turn to the literary classics in such cases. Aleksandr Proshkin adapted for the screen the novella by the classical Soviet soil-conservationist writer Valentin Rasputin, Live and Remember (1975). It is a story about a soldier of the Great Patriotic War (WWII) who, on the way from the hospital, surrenders to an impulse and becomes a deserter who returns to his native village and his wife. Rasputin's story gravitates towards a parable about duty, love and self-sacrifice; in Proshkin's interpretation this tale was twisted towards the side of love against the background of a disappearing Russian village. The director makes no attempt to justify the hero who, in the terminology of those years, was a traitor of the fatherland, but his pain is concentrated on that slice of land which—without any external invasion—fades into nonexistence, a theme that is certainly topical for today's Russia. However, the spectator is prevented from sharing this pain by the old-fashioned theatrical manner with too many “signaling” details of country life, thus reminding us of tourist advertising trailers that invite people to visit Russia and that serve only as an obligatory ornament to the spiritual resistance of Russia's peasant women.

In passing I'll note here that the trendy director Kirill Serebrennikov in his film Yuriev Day (Iur'ev den'), based on a script by Iurii Arabov, accentuates this permanent resistance in a psychologically poorly sustained story about an opera diva, who in front of our eyes submissively adopts a simple lifestyle, cleaning in a prison hospital and assuming an ordinary voice in the church choir. For the lead role Serebrennikov chose the remarkable actress Kseniia Rappoport, but even she could not rescue the stilted script. This improbable story about a “return to the roots,” about the transformation of a soloist into a modest choir voice, rejects any modernising project and remained so incomprehensible and unaccepted at the national film festival Kinotavr that the director removed the film from the program of the Moscow forum.

The well-known cinematographer Sergei Mokritskii debuted with Four Ages of Love (Chetyre vozrasta liubvi). The spectator might have expected a typical debut of a director of photography, with the stress on visual expressiveness, maybe, even impudent experiment. However, Mokritskii made quite a traditional film in the spirit of typical, Soviet cinema, maybe expecting to thus attract maximum attention from the audience. Each of his four short stories thematically takes us into an unusual and acute psychological situation of modern life. Characteristically he ends this almanac with a story about an old man who lives in a monastery and tries to find the parents of a soldier and former captive stranded in the monastery, which allows him to finish with a stereotypical, symbolical panning shot upwards to a panorama of the monastery. This simple move is hardly read by spectators tired of religious symbolism as a “spiritual” passage , but more likely inscribes Mokritskii's film into the current aggressive secularisation of public life when the school curriculum is threatened with the introduction of a compulsory course in Orthodoxy.

The individual propensity of directors towards moral and aesthetic archaisms echoes equally in the trend of “ new patriotism,” along with the state order for the revival of the ideologeme “a great country with a great past”. Among the first to respond was the producer Igor Kalenov, who sensed the timeliness of the project and directed himself the historical blockbuster Alexander. The Neva Battle (Aleksandr. Nevskaia bitva, 2008). Rightly afraid of comparisons with Sergei Eisenstein's classic Alexander Nevskii (1938), the director, together with scriptwriter Vladimir Vardunas, chose another historical moment from the prince's life. Making his film before the Second World War, Eisenstein pictured a battle of Russian and German knights. Now the battle scene concerns the Swedes, and the local boyars (or “oligarchs”), who prefer a “western lifestyle”. The latter aspect clearly reveals the desire to flatter public opinion and ride, as it were, on the crest of the wave: to please the anti-western mood and propose a national hero of highest moral standards as idol and role model. But the action shown on screen in the style of “old Russian kitsch”, obviously targeted at a young audience, is so naively and coarsely shot and dazzles with scandalous errors regarding historical truth that it hardly inspires trust or a special desire to understand the great Russian idea of superiority vis-à-vis the West.

A new sincerity

A significant part of MIFF's Russian program was composed of directorial debuts. Of course, the heroes of films by young directors are their coevals: the first generation untied from the nets of Soviet ideology, who tried themselves the temptations and complexities of a life in freedom. Judging by their films, for these young people freedom is a narcotic trip, sheer estrangement and life in the animosity of a harsh world of adults, and peers.

The writer and documentary filmmaker Igor' Voloshin defined the genre of Nirvana the “cyber-fashion;” his method may be labeled extreme distancing, because his marginal characters look overtly strange, donning Venetian masks and bright carnival costumes, with body piercing and avant-garde make-up inhabiting the streets and stylishly empty interiors of ancient private residences in Petersburg. According to Voloshin, “each character has been conceived like a Mickey Mouse,” that is to say: as a certain shocking and mutated image, which should imprint itself on the spectator's consciousness. In the spirit of “new sincerity” he tells about people who have lost the meaning of life right at its start. In the center of Nirvana stands the story of the quiet and modest nurse with the symbolic name Alice, who arrives in the “magic country” of St Petersburg's squats where she makes new friends—her neighbors: the gloomy and misanthropic drug addict Vel and her weak-willed heroin-addicted boyfriend and barman at a night club, Valera, with the characteristic nickname “the Dead” (Valera Mertvyi). Mertvyi has fallen into the clutches of a drug dealer, and both girls try to find the money to rescue him. But when the dealer gets his money he hands out unclean dope. When Vel dies, Alisa wants to try drugs for the first time to renew her communication with the friend, thus entering into the same circle of hopelessness.

In search of a modern language of expression Voloshin turned not only to the tradition of Russian cinema, but also to the top directors of world cinema, from Rainer Werner Fassbinder, David Lynch, Gregg Araki, Gabriele Salvatores, and Slava Tsukerman to the whole cyberpunk of the 90s. The life of the heroes of Nirvana looks as if it was retold in another language; it appears deliberately unreal and otherworldly, as if it had no connection to Russian reality at all.

The full-length debut by Bakur Bakuradze, Shultes, became a festival hit. It started in Cannes in the Directors' Fortnight, then it received the main prize at Kinotavr, and finally came to MIFF's Russian program. The film's main hero Aleksei Shultes, with a strange non-Russian surname which was chosen, according to the director, to emphasize his “extraneity,” suffers from amnesia. The loss of memory is a loss of the “I,” the transformation into a man without qualities, a phantom; Aleksei compensates his own “nonexistence” by appropriating other people's things, and through them he symbolically joins the world. Bakuradze records his everyday life in a pseudo-documentary manner, with a rhythmic monotony and a narrative that almost hypnotizes the spectator into the condition in which Shultes himself exists. The actor of the title role, Gela Chitava, keeps an impenetrable, unperturbed face throughout the film; frequently he is filmed from behind. Shultes invites an analogy with Robert Bresson's classic Pickpocket (1959)—not only thematically, but also in the manner of narration. For the catholic Bresson, even the most gloomy film with a tragic outcome shone with the gleam of “divine good fortune”, leaving an uplifting impression. Bresson called this the “turning point.” Something similar occurs also with Bakuradze's hero. However, in the end the film becomes a riddle before our eyes—without any hints at enlightenment, without hope for light somewhere in the distance and at the end of the dark tunnel. Yet in his last film, The Devil Probably (Le diable probablement, 1977), where the student Charles ends his life for no obvious reason, Bresson could not find salvation. Since then more than three decades have past and apparently the existential situation has turned into complete hopelessness during this time.

Vladimir Kott presented at the Moscow IFF his debut film, which is based on his own script, Mukha—The Fly. “Fly” is the nickname of Vera Mukhina, a provincial hooligan, who, because of her unpredictable character, is disliked by her schoolmates, while the local police is ready to hold her responsible for arson. From this uneasy situation Mukha is rescued by a man who appears in the small town after receiving a telegram: the trucker Fedor. He has quite unexpectedly received news about the death of a woman he cannot at all remember, but who left him an apartment and… the daughter Vera. Having lived hitherto in complete carelessness and without a family, Fedor conquers the difficult teenager with his compassion. Kott psychologically prepares Fedor's decision to stay in the small town, having accepted responsibility for Mukha who—as is discovered—is not really his daughter. But she is close to Fedor if not by birth, then by character: by her frankness, sincerity, resoluteness and internal freedom. Nevertheless it is difficult for the spectator to sympathize with the girl who, having settled scores with the former admirer of her mother (who did not do her any harm), almost sends Fedor to the other world. She makes him drunk with a sleeping potion and then sets the locked house on fire—and Fedor is saved only by a miracle. Kott took a risk, without trying to play at give-away with the spectator, and presented a sufficiently truthful picture of a generation he knows well.

Behind the “Ocean”

Mikhail Kosyrev-Nesterov wrote himself the script for the film The Ocean (Okean), and, having familiarized himself with the location, rewrote the script. He brought back onto our screens a country which had disappeared from our map of the world: Cuba. Ocean is not only a cultural, but also a social statement, which is both a relict and a curiosity for our cinema. The debutant, who graduated from VGIK in the early 1990s, gained experience; first of all he restored a link with a Russian tradition begun in 1964 with Mikhail Kalatozov and the ingenious, innovative cameraman Sergei Urusevskii and their film I am Cuba (Ia—Kuba). Kosyrev-Nesterov continued the line of “Cuban neo-realism” with precision, writing an invented melodrama seamlessly into the documentary context of modern Cuban life, so that professional actors look as convincingly alive as the casual mass meeting filmed directly in streets of Havana. A “cruel” (in the Latin American spirit) love drama with murder about the young Joel (George Luis Castro) from a fishing village, who is forced into emigration on a fragile boat: this story is rendered through different layers of modern Cuban society, including marginal groups such as prostitutes and homosexuals, who are normally excluded from socialist “content”. So the Cubans will hardly see this film in the near future, although it was made with the support of the Cuban embassy in Russia (having, however, undergone some censorship). The ocean is not only the title, but also one of the film's protagonists, suggesting a Freudian subtext of the desire to return to the womb, where Joel subconsciously heads with his “socialist” infantilism and naive defenselessness. For him the ocean is “the sea of love” and the home where e feels like fish in water. This trait is exposed in open and unrestrained passion, forgotten in our everyday sea bogged down with “office plankton”, simultaneously connecting the modern Russian spectator with the historical past and allowing him to sense that distance that our society reached after perestroika. The scenes of national demonstrations to mark 1st May, reminiscent of Soviet celebratory marches, cast nostalgic emotions which there and then lose their serene flair with an insert about a child lost in the crowd of uniformly dressed people. The common background of socialist reality is washed away by concrete details from individual lives, anticipating the inevitable social changes that we have already gone through. And this creates a feeling of comfort of the soul in the Russian spectator.

Translated by Birgit Beumers

Nina Tsyrkun

Nina Tsyrkun © 2008

Comment on this article via the LJ Forum


Updated: 28 Sep 08