Issue 27 (2010)
Rano Kubaeva: Figa.ro (2009)
reviewed by Chip Crane © 2010
Rano Kubaeva’s Figa.ro, which premiered in the Russian sidebar of the Moscow International Film Festival, has been billed as “a tragicomedy about people trying to survive in conditions of crisis.” Alternating between despair and manic glee, the film playfully draws comparisons between the global financial crisis and a hostage situation before undoing itself with a major plot twist.
The film begins with the protagonist, Ivan (Andrei Molochnyi), making his way to work in a Moscow high-rise to the accompaniment of the overture of Mozart’s opera The Marriage of Figaro. Ivan, a former actor, runs an agency (the Figaro Company) that plans and carries out practical jokes but, as we learn from a conversation with his secretary (Dar’ia Ekamasova), it has been months since they received an order. Ivan’s excitement at the arrival of a pair of potential customers (Ivan Okhlobystin and Svetlana Efremova) quickly turns to fear when he learns that they are actually terrorists planning to assassinate an unnamed figure (throughout the film he is referred to as “He, the chief and foremost”) from his office and he is taken hostage. Ordered to empty his office of unnecessary witnesses, Ivan fires his secretary before spending the rest of the day convincing an unending stream of visitors (his landlord, the owner of a rival firm, his mother-in-law) to leave his office as quickly as possible. Eventually the terrorists receive word that the assassination is to be postponed until morning and, as they make preparations to settle in for the night, the secretary returns, having run an absurd errand in an attempt to win her job back. After she is taken hostage and bound to Ivan (now gagged) she declares her love for him. In the morning, as the plot is coming to a head, the two terrorists reveal that they are actors working for Ivan’s rival and that the whole previous day was a prank. In the closing minutes of the film the actor-terrorists discover that it was Ivan himself who hired his rival to play the prank because he missed his work.
Ivan’s motives for setting the action of the film in motion—boredom due to a lack of business—is one of a number of references to the global financial crisis which haunt the film. Ivan’s landlord arrives, for example, because the Figaro Company is three months behind on its rent for the office space. The office space itself is a remnant of better times—it is much too large for only two people to be working there. Footsteps echo down the too-long corridor every time a visitor enters or exits. Ivan’s workspace appears cavernous because of its sparse furnishing and even the men’s room is made to accommodate a large population, as it has at least three urinals. The strained relationship between Russia and Ukraine is also referenced obliquely by Ivan’s unequal relationship with his wife. Ivan, a Ukrainian, was bailed out of prison by his extremely wealthy future mother-in-law in exchange for his signature on a marriage contract that required him to be, essentially, a servant to his wife. We see the contract in action when Ivan’s refusal to pick his wife up at her hairdresser (because he was being held hostage) prompts a visit from his mother-in-law, who threatens him with divorce, dispossession and deportation.
This inequality is central to Ivan’s character because he, like the film’s namesake, is a lower class trickster surviving by his wits in a world dominated by a grotesque upper class. The landlord, whose rent Ivan has successfully put off paying, is a child of oligarchs whose parents give him a new office every year for his birthday and who tries to pick up the female terrorist by informing her that he owns a yacht. The Figaro Company’s pranks are essentially based on Ivan’s ability to fast-talk his way around his social betters, convincing one, for example that he was an archaeologist selling the hands of the Venus of Milo. Over the course of the film he demonstrates his skill at deception again and again, explaining to one visitor after another the terrorists’ presence in his office and convincing them to leave.
Ivan’s deceptions form a small part of the theatricality that Kubaeva playfully explores in the film. Ivan and the actors playing the terrorists are constantly engaged in the performance of roles for the duration of the prank. For their roles the actors take on easily recognizable criminal types: an existentialist sociopath spouting quotations and a rational seductress. Kubaeva even aids their performance as terrorists through the use of cinematic clichés from crime genre films, such as using slow motion for their entrance scene. Ivan, even though he organized the prank, maintains the role of a businessman scared for his life. These performances are aimed both at the other characters and the audience, who is not let in on the joke until the final five minutes of the film. The characters’ performances are punctuated by moments when they are alone and can step out of their roles, but these moments contain some slippage between the actors and their roles. One terrorist, for example, steps into the restroom to take some pills. While we later learn that these pills are a treatment for the actor’s ulcer, his peculiar behavior during and after ingesting them suggests that they are narcotics and are at least partially responsible for his character’s psychotic behavior.
Kubaeva frequently plays with this tension between the reality within the situation the characters are performing and the actual reality of the film. When he is dealing with visitors to his office, one of Ivan’s most frequent explanations for the “terrorists” behavior is that they are actors performing a scene. Within the performance this is a deception, but outside of it it is the truth. One moment of the film, which takes this play with reality to another level, involves the visit of a security guard played by the popular musician DJ Smash. When he enters, the female terrorist asks him if he is DJ Smash, only to be informed that he is just a security guard responding to a noise complaint. After being told that they are actors rehearsing a scene he leaves, singing the DJ Smash song “Novaia volna” to himself.
While the characters involved in the hostage situation are fictitious, many of the props that they used are not. The pistols used by the terrorists fire real bullets as evidenced by the rain of plaster following a shot fired into the ceiling. This real threat of violence causes the dark mood of some of the scenes to linger even after the audience is let in on the prank, especially when Ivan plays Russian roulette with one of the “terrorists.” Actions taken during the performance of the prank have important effects of the world outside on the performance as well—Ivan’s relationship with his wife is probably over, he really turns down a commission from Gazprom, and the love that his secretary admits to feeling for him is genuine.
The film ends with an affirmation of the authentic. We see the actors who played the terrorists, no longer in costume, playing with their infant son and discussing their recent job. Ivan socializes briefly with them and their employer before turning his attention to his secretary. The final shots of the film show him following her out of the elevator as they leave the office building, and while their future is left open, there is clearly a possibility that surviving the crisis will lead to a happy ending.
University of Pittsburgh
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Figa.ro, Russia, 2009
Color, 90 minutes
Director: Rano Kubaeva
Screenplay: Igor` Akhmedov
Cinematography: Zaur Bolotaev
Production Design: Robert Davidyan
Costume Design: Aleksei Lukanshevich
Editing: Nikolai Pigarev
Cast: Andrei Molochnyi, Ivan Okhlobystin, Svetlana Efremova, Dar`ia Ekamasova, Farida Muminova, Egor Andreev, Svetlana Germanova, DJ Smash, Dmitrii Romanidi
Creative Producer: Rauf Kubaev
Producer: Rano Kubaeva
Production: RDK Film
Rano Kubaeva: Figa.ro (2009)
reviewed by Chip Crane © 2010