Issue 45 (2014)
Anna Tchernakova: Dog’s Paradise (Sobachii Rai, 2013)
reviewed by Irene Ulman© 2014
Dog’s Paradise is about two children who attempt to make sense of the rather absurd world around them while creating their own “paradise,” in which they nurture the hopes and dreams that are denied to them by adults. It is a collaboration between a doyen of the Soviet cinema, screenwriter Aleksandr Adabashian, and Anna Tchernakova [Chernakova], a younger Russian-Canadian director, who lives and works in the UK.
A well-known actor, screenwriter and director in his own right, Adabashian has authored screenplays for some of the best-loved Soviet classics since the 1970s, many of them directed by that giant of Soviet cinema, Nikita Mikhalkov (Slave of Love [Raba liubvi, 1976], Oblomov , Unfinished Piece for the Player Piano [Neokonchennaia p’esa dlia mekhanicheskogo pianino, 1977], to name just a few). In recent times Adabashian has expressed a commitment to bringing young viewers back to core values (Vereshchagin 2013), and has lamented the lack of funding for children’s and family films in a Russia where the popularity of American blockbusters leaves little room for commercial distribution of diverse Russian films or even television content. Adabashian wrote the screenplay for Dog’s Paradise more than a decade ago, but no funding was forthcoming until Anna Tchernakova succeeded in getting it off the ground.
In this context, a new Russian film that wants to market itself as family entertainment is a welcome thing. But Dog’s Paradise is a mixed bag of plots and subplots, including a dark twist that uncovers some rather complicated human impulses, to which parents may choose not to expose their children. It’s a pity, because on most levels this is a film that mature children could appreciate.
It’s 1953, and eleven-year-old Mitia (Sasha Kudriavtsev) returns to Moscow with his family after having been deported fourteen years earlier. A girl called Tania (Ania Korneva) lives in the same block of flats. It’s midsummer, a lonely time for a child when many families escape the city heat. Mitia is just what Tania needs, and she proves to be a truly inventive playmate. Having learnt that Mitia’s beloved dog Hector has been left behind up north (Mitia has been told that conditions in Moscow are not suitable for a dog), Tania quickly invents a tall tale about a café where only children with dogs are allowed. She inspires Mitia to create a perfect den for Hector in an unoccupied, sealed-up room. The idea is to convince the adults that Hector will be happy in Moscow. The secret room becomes their private dog’s paradise. To furnish it, they steal junk (or treasures, as it turns out) from family and neighbors.
Dog’s Paradise is Mitia’s recollection of a childhood memory. His adult voice introduces the apartment building and the yard where the story unfolds, initially as a colorful cardboard cutout, like a mini stage set, which then turns into an equally bright and colorful live set of the house and its people as Mitia remembers them. The “paradise” is many things here: Mitia’s distant childhood and friendship with Tania, the year on the cusp of history before Stalin’s rule ends, the café fantasy represented by a utopian image of Moscow—happy children in red Young Pioneer ties, each with a dog on a leash, with a classic Stalin-era skyscraper towering at the end of the boulevard.
Tania is Mitia’s reason for telling the story. She is indeed the best thing in the film (both children are first-time actors). She is complex but also simple, as is any child who needs to be loved (her family situation is touchingly woven in). She lives a life of sad privilege. She wants her parents, she wants a dog, she wants a friend. Deprived of parental love herself, she mothers Mitia. Mitia is childishly wide-eyed and self-absorbed, but Tania is wise beyond her years, a child in name only. She absorbs the secrets about Mitia’s family that she overhears or extracts from the hapless adults, but never gives anything away. Mitia might be the narrator but Tania is the one who is all-seeing and all-knowing. Much of the film is really her perspective.
The world in which Mitia’s family lands is toy-like, unreal and bright in a way that is not just summer-bright, but brings to mind Fellini’s genre-defining Amarcord (1973). The poetics of nostalgia are underscored by the ever-present snow-like poplar fluff, a perennial feature of Moscow summers. The apartment block is populated with funny, deliberately overplayed characters; the neighbors are a mix of social types: the War-Wounded (physically and psychologically), the Communist Party elite (Tania’s diplomat parents), the Looters who appropriate some of the deportees’ furniture.
The family returns to their old, spacious and clean apartment in central Moscow’s Serov Drive (near Lubianka Square, synonymous with the KGB, which is headquartered there), with their possessions, furniture, even a pot-plant. While this is not the central issue in a film that does not purport to be historical, people deported by Stalin were highly unlikely to return to the address that they had occupied prior to their deportation, let alone with their possessions intact. The screenplay was in fact based on a real address and real stories (Malakhova 2013), but this detail jars, because even if verisimilitude may not be crucial, there is not enough depth to this family’s story to make it believable. Blurred history can work on a level of a childhood memory, but plausibility becomes more critical once the narrative reaches beyond Mitia’s childish recollections.
The reason for the family’s exile is more fantastical yet. The family matriarch, Mitia’s grandmother, is a youthful, energetic and despotic Elena (Marina Ignatova). Elena is obsessed with Alexander Herzen, the 19th century Russian thinker regarded as a revolutionary prophet by the Soviet regime. Herzen features in Elena’s personal history in the most unfortunate way. We are told that his young son drowned in a shipwreck while in the care of his governess. The governess survived, and Elena is her grand-daughter. Fast-forward to 1939: Elena has authored a book about Herzen for which she is awarded the Stalin prize, the highest accolade imaginable. At the awards ceremony, in Stalin’s presence, she announces that she cannot accept the prize as her success has been built on the tear of a child. For this she and her family are deported - though not all of them, as we discover later. When the family returns, there is an occupant in their apartment called Konstantin (Igor Gordin), who remains a mystery for a while.
The two plots, Mitia’s and Tania’s exploits and Mitia’s family drama, don’t quite blend comfortably or convincingly together. Parts of the film feel too artificial to make a strong impact. The big dirty family secret that Tania discovers is shocking enough – not for any moral reason but because it fails to convince. The adult characters are too sketchy to be powerful or moving. Who is Elena? A tortured gothic soul? A Chekhovian heroine? Chekhov is a major presence here, and there are scenes where the characters begin to behave as they might in a traditional production of a Chekhov play. It must be said that Chekhov is a passion shared by Tchernakova and Adabashian who have made numerous films between them based either on Chekhov’s work or directly about him (see Natalucci 2011). A Chekhovian mix of tragedy and farce is perhaps what Dog’s Paradise aims to create. Again, the various strands of the film are not sustained enough to make this work. The family’s reenactment in masques of their arrest on New Year’s Eve is engaging, but the scene is quickly diluted by a farcical intrusion from their neighbors (who are convinced that the family is stealing their valued possessions).
Similarly, after a strong ending to the Tania-Mitia narrative, there is a sudden surprise musical ending as all the neighbors sing (each family in its own setting) the Soviet hit “Proshchai liubimyi gorod” (“Goodbye, Beloved City”). It’s a kind of farewell to the characters, but it’s a digression: the two children are the story here. They are real in a world that is not very believable.
Nothing in Dog’s Paradise makes an impact quite as strong as the girl Tania, but there are other effective performances. Adabashian himself is very good in the supporting role as Elena’s quirky husband Boris. Also notable is Natal’ia Akimova as Irina, Tania’s devoted nanny. Finally, the soundtrack is a highlight. The composer is Gavin Bryars (UK), one of whose better-known works is “Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet” and who has collaborated with the likes of Tom Waits and Brian Eno. The film has received some recognition at festivals, most notably for Ania Korneva’s performance. It was awarded a special jury prize at the “Window on Europe” festival in Vyborg in 2013.
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Vereshchagin, Mikhail “Missiia Ameriki oposhlit’ vselennuiu – blagopoluchno vypolnena”, Interview with Aleksandr Adabash’ian. Izvestiia, 26 December 2013
Malakhova, Polina, “Kakoi on, Sobachii rai?” Vash dosug, 26 November 2013
Natalucci, Chiara, “Anna Tchernakova: Death in Pince-nez or Our Chekhov,” KinoKultura 33 (2011)
Dog’s Paradise, Russia 2013
Color, 116 minutes
Director: Anna Tchernakova [Chernakova]
Screenplay: Aleksandr Adabashian
Director of Photography: Vladimir Klimov
Sound: Lev Ezhov, Antonina Balashova
Music: Gavin Bryars
Editor: Tat’iana Kuzmicheva
Production Design: Aleksandr Adabashian, Anastasiia Karimulina
Costume Design: Nadezhda Vasilieva
Make-up: Galina Ponomareva
Producer: Iurii Sapronov
Production: RWS – Russian World Studios
Cast: Marina Ignatova, Igor’ Gordin, Aleksandr Adabashian, Natal’ia Tkachenko, Nina Semenova, Anastasiia Fursa, Glafira Tarkhanova, Natal’ia Akimova, Lidia Bairashevskaia, Konstantin Vorob’ev, Oksana Glushkova, Maksim Bitiukov, Natal’ia Parashkina, Svetlana Asanova, Leonid Timtsunik, Dmitrii Podnozov
Anna Tchernakova: Dog’s Paradise (Sobachii Rai, 2013)
reviewed by Irene Ulman© 2014