KinoKultura: Issue 54 (2016)

Desperately Searching for a Hero: New Russian Cinema at MIFF 2016

By Elena Markova

The Russian films at the 38th Moscow International Film Festival (MIFF) inevitably made you feel as if you were riding a roller coaster with unexpected twists and turns lying ahead. Some features, going slowly, “climbing up the rails,” brought the audience a renewed hope for a riveting plot, newly-found aesthetic value, peculiar narration, some kind of positive changes. But a moment later there followed a nerve-yanking drop. Annually presented at the House of Cinema, this year’s Russian Program included 18 feature films on the main screen.

Monk and DemonThe only Russian contender in the main international competition was Nikolai Dostal'’s The Monk and the Demon (Monakh i bes), with the screenplay created by the prominent Russian writer Iurii Arabov. Incredibly rich with associations and allusions, this film brilliantly took on Nikolai Gogol'’s magic realism and put the action in the middle of the 19th century. Timofei Tribuntsev, who played the lead with great panache, was able to combine dramatic tension with ironic humor. A fantastic comedy and grotesque about the clerics, this film reveals all those everlasting Russian problems from the unusual point of view and stands out as a captivating and wondrous work. It is a very national film, which met an instinctively favorable reaction from the audience. Nevertheless, director Dostal’—who already won the Golden St George in 2009 for his film Petia on the Way to Heaven (Petia po doroge v tsarstvie nebesnoe)—did not get an award this time. The main prize in the competition went to the Iranian director Reza Mirkarimi for his notable, very striking feature film Daughter (Doch’).

In the Russian Program, out-of-competition Russian films were presented in various, multifaceted sections: 18 films on the main screen, a broad retrospective, “30 years without Tarkovsky”, a panorama of short films, documentary screenings, animated films, and free screenings of the classics in the Tretyakov gallery. Among many of those eighteen features presented in the Great Hall of the House of Cinema there were both directorial debuts and films made by experienced directors. An immensely variegated program contained movies of different genres, from the lyrical comedy Teli and Toli (directed by Aleksandr Amirov) to the melodrama Two (Dvoe, made by Andrei Elinson), from the drama Goldfish (Zolotaia rybka, directed by Aleksandr Galibin) to the thriller Pure Art (Chistoe iskusstvo, made by Renat Davlet’iarov). A discernible and noteworthy trait is that it is quite an arduous task to call at least three of the program films “pure art.” Spectacular—yes, animating—yes, but not as grandiose as those films and even TV series these works have been constantly paraphrasing.

Representation of disabilities

doctor A quite surprising tendency, but several films in the program touched the topic of illness, physical or intellectual, and its treatment. The famous actor Gosha (Iurii) Kutsenko unveiled his directorial debut with Doctor (Vrach). He also wrote the screenplay and appeared in the leading role of the neurosurgeon Iurii Mikhailovich, who works at the city hospital. It is a very personal, intimate picture for the director, but evidently it is better to call it a monodrama theater piece, not a film. Kutsenko is the center of this universe: he is a genuine doctor and at the same time both a sanctimonious philosopher and a loquacious pundit who adores reciting moralistic monologues when walking through the hospital. Other actors fade into the background; all they have to do is to listen to the doctor’s pompous speeches and grudgingly agree with them. “If you love—then kill:” this philosophy he applies to himself, not to his patients. When he remains paralyzed after a car accident, his co-workers from the hospital need to decide whether to stop the treatment or not. The finale is open: we do not receive an answer. There is a desperate need to liberate this well-worn cliché by exploding it into something spectacular. Obviously there is no impending scarcity of films about doctors, so there must be some kind of innovative, big idea that adds zest to the film. Otherwise, this film simply cannot be considered as a comprehensive artistic work and risks to be forgotten right after the viewing.

gum shoesThe main competition’s opening film Gum Shoes (Ke-Dy) by Sergei Solov’ev, which was also presented in the Russian Program, on the contrary impressed the audience by its reckless and foolhardy attitude. Based on the short story “Paradise Found” by Andrei Gelasimov, this story starts on the eve of the draft day of a disheveled youngster Sasha, nicknamed Jagger. He decides to spend some of his savings and buy a pair of stylish sneakers. On the way to the shop he meets a buoyant girl named Amira and agrees to help her take her nine-year-old autistic son Mitia to an orphanage. At the same time, Jagger is chased by the army commissar, whose role is performed by the Russian rap artist Basta (moreover, Basta is also responsible for the film’s soundtrack). Monochrome image cannot spoil the beauty of halcyon summer days, adding more charm. A motley crowd travels and enjoys the moment. It is hard not to trace parallels with Solov’ev’s earlier films: the world of the film is artificial, but this time everything looks perfunctory, coarse and goady. Though there are a lot of similarities, this is not the third part of ASSA (1986): everything has changed irrevocably and that spirit has gone. It seems that Solov’ev has decided to use familiar methods in order to repeat his previous success. But it is not enough to use intertitles with random pompous phrases, an outlandish plot, odd characters and underground (now rap) music episodes. All those techniques are no longer idiosyncratic and sometimes seem to be labored and derivative. “We want change”, indomitable temper, indelible impressions—but instead we get an insufferable boor. Unfortunately, the director makes a parody not only of himself but also of the generation he’s trying to speak with. Solov’ev adds episodes from Mikhail Kalatozov’s legendary film The Cranes are Flying (Letiat zhuravli, 1957) and combines them with the main events (a similar method is used by Bertolucci in The Dreamers, when he includes references to Godard’s Band of Outsiders). One of rare light moments from the film refers to the episode when Amira listens to Jagger’s advice and decides to take her son Mitia away from the orphanage. This crosses with Veronica’s decision to adopt Bor’ka in honor of her dead fiancé Boris. The only difference is that we know for certain that Boris was shot dead at the beginning of war, while we have no facts about Jagger’s fate. Boris from Kalatozov’s The Cranes are Flying  was an intrepid hero, there was no place for nonchalance; Jagger is not a hero, but he is indifferent and lackadaisical. He sits inside a tank and loudly cries: “Who are we shooting at?” and a moment later he is advised not to think about it: “just aim accurately!” is the only phrase he can hear. “For the Motherland! For Putin! ¡No pasarán!”—this is Jagger’s reply to the emptiness when he starts shooting randomly. After this phantasmagoria Solov’ev places a phrase on the screen “If only there were no war”, but the clapping in the hall was disordered and the reaction was not unanimous, making it clear that we are living in an absurd world.

The debut film of director Andrei Elinson Two (Dvoe) involved more elements of melodrama than of social drama. It remains unresolved what might be more useful for a film about the life of a disabled man in Saint Petersburg. Injured during a skiing accident, the unsociable and reserved scientist Valerii Nesterov is cooped in his hi-tech apartment. He tries to invent an exoskeleton which should help people with various injuries to regain their ability to move freely. A girl called Mila, forced to complete a number of hours for community services, enters his apartment to help the scientist with domestic errands. Opposites are attracted, and Valerii’s character starts to change very slowly. Love makes him a different man, as the creators of the film suggest. This point of view is rather widespread among filmmakers, but maybe it is necessary to remember that not many disabled people in Russia have an apartment like that of the protagonist, filled with technical gadgets, automated systems, and enough space for a wheelchair. So a highly significant topic turns into another fairy tale as the story ends on a happy note.

New Russian comedy: light as a feather, stiff as a board

teli and toli About comprehension and interaction was the lyrical comedy Teli and Toli, the debut film of Aleksandr Amirov, who won the “Golden Eagle” for Best Editing in 2012. This down-to-earth story takes place in the mountains of the North Caucasus, at the border between two villages, the Georgian Teli and the Ossetian Toli. The main characters are friendly, good-natured and even naïve people, who do not want to admit any official borders between their homes. Having lived in peace and harmony for years, these people perceive reality in a very straightforward way; both Ossetians and Georgians are linked by a strong spiritual bond. “How are you going to divide our cemetery?” they apprehensively ask the two border guards. “Here is the grave of an Ossetian man, next to him is the grave of a Georgian man. And there you see the grave of our Jewish teacher. It is impossible to make a border here!”, they say. “Then we are going to divide the cemetery by zigzags!”, follows a direct response. The celebrated Georgian actor Kakhi Kavsadze and Chechen actor Dagun Omayev have leading roles in this film and demonstrate their undoubted talent. Craving for comedies and simple stories, Moscow audiences gave a warm welcome to the film. Nevertheless, this charming feature still has a glaring omission. Obvious, the filmmakers were inspired by the legendary comedies of Georgii Daneliia, such as Don’t Grieve! (Ne goriui!, 1968) and Mimino (1977). Unfortunately, they were not able to fully develop this idea: the directorial method seemed old-fashioned and the scenario was too sweet, too predictable and too unbelievable. There was, however, the good intention to create a film about friendship, all the knots of the future story were tied, but instead of untying them, the screenwriters mercilessly cut them all. Of course it is preferable to make a film about how Georgians and Ossetians drink wine rather than wage war, but a plot and more real characters would have helped.

no honeymoonIn the comedy No Honeymoon (Ne svadebnoe puteshestvie, director Dmitrii Izmest’ev), the daughter of a successful businessman (Marina Vasil’eva) dreams of living her own life and becoming a dancer. To stop her attempts at running away from home, her father decides to marry his daughter to the first man who comes along. This appears to be the musician Vania from a musical ensemble (Ivan Shakhnazarov). Theoretically, the success of this kind of films depends on the skill of the director and wit of the screenwriter. Unfortunately, there was a lack of both. There is a thin line between love and hate, and it is the same old story for generations of filmmakers, but dozens of films were able to artfully explore that topic. It seems that Russian filmmakers are trying to figure out what type of humor the audience likes most. As if leaving behind years of successful Soviet filmmaking, contemporary directors are reinventing the wheel, referring to quite dubious examples of romantic comedy. Absolutely typical of this trend, No Honeymoon takes a bit from several comedies and mixes it into a mawkish and steep love story you just want to forget.

man from futureTime travel has also been the apple of the filmmaker’s eye for ages. The Man from the Future (Chelovek iz budushchego) is a debut by Roman Artem’ev, which premiered at Kinotavr and tells the story of an awkward researcher, Merkur’ev (Aleksandr Chislov). This feature-length film is the continuation of a short, he 15-minute-long The Savior (Spasitel’, 2013). On the eve of the end of the world, supermarket cashier Gulnara meets a naked man, who informs her that he is a professor from the future and she urgently needs to become the mother of the savior of mankind. Hours later Merkur’ev realizes that he needs another Gulnara from another local supermarket and that he has made a mistake in his complicated calculations. Once the story is leaked to the media, it takes epic proportions and Merkur’ev becomes a celebrity. Artem’ev offers a senseless and merciless comic relief from mundane despair, offering salvation in the manner of Vladimir Menshov’s Shirli Myrli (1995), where an unprecedented large diamond is called the “Savior of Russia.” Waiting for the Man from the Future, the Savior or the Superman, Russians are ready to believe any fable. Merkur’ev’s comedy is not only a comic reflection of the coming apocalypse, but also a “pantophagy” of the media and stories that go viral.

for rent house with inconveniencesThe genre of the comedy was quite popular at the festival, including Vera Storozheva’s For Rent: A House with all Inconveniences (Sdaetsia dom so vsemi neudobstvami). Storozheva was the winner of the Golden Saint George in 2007 for her film Travelling with Pets (Puteshestvie s domashnimi zhivotnymi). Creating overwhelmingly personal and intensely intimate stories, Storozheva builds her new film on Masha Traub’s novel House in the South (Domik na iuge). An adventurous broker, who has rented a house by the sea to several families at once, abruptly disappears, so that four different women with their children are forced to stay in the same place. The star cast includes Viktoria Isakova, who performs a perennially working single mother; Svetlana Khodchenkova, who plays a self-obsessed city slicker; Irina Pegova, who stars as a provincial dishy-dolly; and Nina Dvorzhetskaia, a conservative teacher with the voice of a sergeant who immediately takes care of all the children. Representing different social backgrounds, these women cannot find any other topic for discussion than men and children. Maybe therefore For Rent: A House with all Inconveniences was one of the most popular films with the public. “It met all of my expectations, it is a very light, kind film, with a great sense”, a female spectator shared her opinion after the screening. The action takes place near Anton Chekhov’s house in Crimea, and there are frequent references to Chekhov, even though overall it could be more profound and focus less on mediocre and slight problems.

Cause this is thriller, thriller night

Suspenseful detectives were also presented at the festival. A screen adaptation of Egor Neimokhov’s story “Saysary Lake Mystery” was renamed My Killer (Moi ubiitsa) in Kostas Marsan’s detective film. Made in Yakutia, this is a film about a young detective who tries to reveal the ins and outs of a murder case of a young woman. After the first few minutes, it is clear what inspired the filmmakers. Trying to be atmospheric, moody and to get a special ambiance, My Killer takes some approaches from the TV series True Detective (2014-present) and Sherlock (2010-present). Frankly speaking, it is also quite interesting to watch how the film turns the landscapes of Yakutsk to look more like New York. The same is true for the film Pure Art (Chistoe iskusstvo), directed by Renat Davlet’iarov, which makes Moscow look more like New York of Martin Scorcese or Hong Kong of Wong Kar-Wai. Based on a true story of artists who sold counterfeit pictures of Russian masters at the world’s leading auctions of “Sotheby’s” and “Christie’s”, this film uses most advanced technical effects to make the audience fidget in their chairs. An “erotic thriller,” as described by the producer, this film tells an unbelievable story where a young girl cannot be caught, neither by the maniacs nor by the FSB. And it managed to impress audiences: “We are Russian women, that’s what happens if somebody wounds our feeling”.

From the rest of the Russian Program differed Aleksandr Galibin’s Goldfish (Zolotaia rybka), which received a prize from the Russian Film Clubs’ Federation. Set in a time of poverty and hunger in post-war Kirghizia of 1946, this film tells the story of a woman who is evacuated from Leningrad with her two children, boys of ten and six. The family struggles to survive, and the boys sell handmade rugs on the local market, while their father is dying in hospital from injuries sustained during the war. But when they learn that the goldfish from the fairy tale can fulfill three wishes, they find a new purpose. Dazzling and thought-provoking, the film differs through its kindness and simplicity, and is reminiscent of those legendary Soviet films that were powerful not only due to big budget.

Elena Markova
Moscow

Elena Markova© 2016

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Updated: 09 Oct 16