Issue 30 (2010)

Andrei Proshkin: Minnesota (2009)

reviewed by Vitaly Chernetsky © 2010

minnesotaWith his fourth feature film, Minnesota, Andrei Proshkin, son of the well-known director Aleksandr Proshkin, continues to explore the problems facing the younger generation in contemporary Russia. His previous film, The Soldiers’ Decameron (Soldatskii dekameron, 2005), focused on the army; the present feature shifts focus to another testosterone-charged environment: the world of ice hockey.

The film is based on a screenplay by the acclaimed veteran scriptwriter Aleksandr Mindadze, written several years earlier and published in Iskusstvo kino in 2005. Its original title, Otryv (“Breakout”, or “Soaring”), suggests a deeper philosophical problematic typically explored in films based on Mindadze’s scripts. However, Mindadze ended up taking the title for his own directorial debut, released in 2007.

At the center of Minnesota is the intense relationship between two brothers, fellow hockey players, which spills into dysfunctionality. The two are stars of the local minor league team in a provincial Russian town, and appear to be very close. Yet their personalities could not be more different. The older brother, Mikhail, is fond of the bottle, freely goes back and forth between his wife and mistress, and is physically aggressive in his cruel teasing of his younger brother, Igor’, who overall comes across as essentially an earnest idealist. Igor’ is approached by a scout with an invitation to play for a team in the US (hence the title), yet the offer is extended to him alone. He is torn by the idea of being separated from his brother and initially insists the two of them be transferred together. However, Mikhail’s impulsive behavior continues to sabotage every opportunity for the two to shine together on ice in front of the scout. Mikhail also habitually chips away at his younger brother’s self-esteem, repeatedly referring to him by a feminizing nickname, “Chepchik” (‘bonnet’), and bluntly asserting, “Without me, you are nothing.” Yet all this abuse is not part of some Machiavellian plan—it is just a twisted mess of affection, rivalry, and jealousy.

minnesotaMinnesota offers a thoughtful commentary on one of the key paradigms of masculinity in contemporary Russia. The screenplay’s main focus is on the moral dilemma Igor’ faces and the opportunity he ultimately loses to become fully his own person. He is torn between a genuine devotion to his brother and the promise of a new life, between hope and desperation, between a drive to succeed and a dash of the drive to self-destruct that he appears to possess, just like his brother. In the final part of the film, Igor’ draws closer to fully independent selfhood, yet this self becomes ever more damaged in the process. His brother, however, seems to turn increasingly delusional. The resolution of the film’s in truth irresolvable conflict is delivered through a deus ex machina device and makes one wonder whether the filmmakers’ imagination failed them.

minnesotaIn the overall conception of the film, the director appears to shift the original focus of the script, making it less the story of younger brother’s doomed struggle to break free of his habitual environment and reinvent himself, and more of a psychological drama of brotherhood. Sergei Gorobchenko, the actor playing Mikhail, the older brother, gets first billing and dwarfs his partner, Anton Pampushnyi, on the film’s poster. The overall visual and narrative style of the film appears to be a latter-day incarnation of the chernukha films of the late 1980s—early 1990s; its vision of the world profoundly pessimistic.

minnesotaAt the same time, the daily life of provincial Russia is given a rather realistic, if unflattering portrayal in the film. The unnamed town where it is set (the film was mostly shot in Rybinsk in the Iaroslavl region) is comparatively well off; the characters are not deprived of the basic comforts, yet their personalities come across as pale photocopies of characters lifted from The Brothers Karamazov (the “demonic” older brother, the idealistic younger one, both in search of themselves; the ridiculous, ineffectual father; the “fatal” women; and even the devil-tempter, the scout). The plot also freely lifts other conventions of tragedy and mythology such as the Cain and Abel-like contrast of two brothers, the taboo sexual attraction (Igor’ has sexual encounters with both Mikhail’s wife and mistress) and other passions impossible to control. In a refreshing turn, the signifier “Minnesota” is not saturated with the anti-Americanism so common in much recent Russian cinema; it is rather a magic cipher, much like “Wisconsin” in Werner Herzog’s Stroszek (1977), and to my mind the film strives to allude to Herzog’s darkly surreal vision (especially in the final scenes).

The actors, especially the two leads, deliver excellent, highly believable performances. The film’s minimalist, atmospheric soundtrack is impressive. The camerawork and directing, however, come across as rather uninspired, moving from earnest gritty hyperrealism to heavy-handed symbolism (as, for instance, in the scene of the drunken father of the two main characters walking past an old church). In the end, Minnesota unfortunately comes across as an interesting but flawed hybridization of a philosophical parable, a “bytovoi” film, and a psychological drama.

Vitaly Chernetsky
Miami University

Comment on this review via the LJ Forum

Minnesota, Russia, 2009
Color, 91 min.
Director: Andrei Proshkin
Screenplay: Aleksandr Mindadze
Cinematography: Iurii Raiskii
Art Director: Iurii Karasik
Music: Mark Erman
Cast: Sergei Gorobchenko, Anton Pampushnyi, Vitalii Khaev, Anna Ukolova, Aleksei Shevchenkov, Lidiia Matasova, Tatiana Kopylova
Producers: Ruben Dishdishian, Aram Movsesian, Sergei Danielian

Andrei Proshkin: Minnesota (2009)

reviewed by Vitaly Chernetsky © 2010

Updated: 01 Oct 10