Issue 68 (2020)

Aleksandr Veledinskii: In the Port of Cape Town (V Keiptaunskom portu, Russia, 2019)

reviewed by Andrei Rogatchevski © 2020

capetownThe surreal comedy drama In the Port of Cape Town by Aleksandr Veledinskii—the critically acclaimed director of Russian (Russkoe), Alive (Zhivoi) and The Geographer Drank Away the Globe (Geograf globus propil),—utilizes Veledinskii’s own film script, written almost a quarter century ago and apparently developed from a story he once heard from his father (Shmeleva 2019).

In 1945, in a secluded spot somewhere on Sakhalin Island, three armed male strangers (all of them Russian) meet by chance and suddenly begin an unnecessary and unprovoked shootout in which all three ostensibly die. Fast-forward to the year 1996 in Sebastopol, St Petersburg and Cape Town—and it turns out that all three characters actually survived the gunfight and lived until a ripe old age to teach filmgoers a moral lesson.

capetownThe first character, known as Sailor [Moriak] (Sergei Sosnovskii), a Sebastopol-based retired seaman in his early seventies, stops drinking in order to live longer, hopefully into the next millennium. This symbolically bucks the trend, according to which unregulated alcohol sales in Russia throughout the 1990s “cost the lives of 3 million Russians who would otherwise be alive today” (Anon. 2009).

The second character, referred to as Playwright [Dramaturg] (Vladimir Steklov), formerly a juvenile delinquent and later a respected St Petersburg author on the brink of suicide, decides, instead of offing himself, to personally eliminate a local mobster who put out a contract on him for revealing too much in his recent book about St Petersburg’s criminal underworld. It is as if Veledinskii is telling his audiences: “Don’t give up too early and keep fighting evil with all your might!”

capetownThe third character, nicknamed Crime Boss [Pakhan] (Aleksandr Robak), recovered from his Sakhalin wound just in time to be smuggled on board the USS Missouri (don’t ask!), and afterwards to Cape Town, where he started two families, one with a white woman and another with a black one. As the male offspring from both relationships grew up to be feuding gangsters, Pakhan left them his fortune (hard-earned as a popular restaurant owner) under the strict condition that they would abandon the life of crime. It is never too late for a sinner to save his soul, this storyline seems to be claiming.

capetownIn the Port of Cape Town’s constant and somewhat confusing alternation between different time periods, countries and plot segments is compounded by a complex mish-mash of cinematic styles. To mention but a few, the opening dance sequence overlooking a magnificent cityscape is reminiscent of Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone hoofing it in La La Land; the variative retelling of the same event by several witnesses, Rashomon; and Pakhan’s posthumous videotaped message to his South African progeny, Yul Brynner’s famous 1985 anti-smoking commercial.

capetownVeledinskii demonstrates an equally impressive competence in all of these (and some other) styles, including a silent film pastiche of a scene in which a Hermitage guide goes into emergency labor underneath Rembrandt’s Danae. Veledinskii’s expert handling of a busy and eclectic soundtrack (with compositions by Mozart, Beethoven, Rakhmaninov, Vasilii Solov’ev-Sedoi, Boris Grebenshchikov, Viktor Tsoi, the anti-apartheid song “Asimbonanga” and the song of the Volga boatmen “Dubinushka”) is similarly remarkable. It probably could not have been otherwise, given that the film’s title is borrowed from a Russianized version of a world-wide hit by Sholom Secunda, “Bei mir bistu shein”, and thus presupposes a stronger emphasis on music than Veledinskii normally favors.

The film critic Mikhail Trofimenkov (2019) defined In the Port of Cape Town as a “philosophical vaudeville.” While the vaudeville components seem sufficiently fresh and rewarding,[1] the film’s philosophy can probably be summarized in a statement that feels rather commonplace: “We are all one big family, and should live at peace with each other.” Was it worth waiting almost twenty-five years for the picture to be made to infer something that everyone knows anyway? As it stands, In the Port of Cape Town looks a bit like a puerile prank, in which a small and cheap gift is wrapped into too many boxes and layers of colorful paper. The viewer who is patient enough to unpick the film’s convoluted visual, aural and narrative structure, may well be a little disappointed with the message inside.


Notes

1] If certain conditions are met: “To understand In the Port of Cape Town, you need to have a delicate ear for music and a poetic worldview, which would allow you to see a complex pattern of several key topics and appreciate the ingenuity with which they are intertwined” (Maslova 2019).

Andrei Rogatchevski
UiT The Arctic University of Norway

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Works Cited

Anon. 2009. “Alcohol Blamed for Half of ‘90s Russian Deaths: Social and Economic Shocks of Soviet Collapse Decimated Population.” NBCNews. 25 June.

Maslova, Lidiia, 2019. “V Keiptaunskom portu: Mnogokhodovochka, kak v more lodochka,” Seans, 15 August.

Shmeleva, Ol’ga, 2019. “V Keiptaunskom portu: Rezhisser Aleksandr Veledinskii rasskazal o rabote nad novym fil’mom,” Mosfilm 5 August.

Trofimenkov, Mikhail, 2019. “Botik dobra,” Kommersant 23 August.


In the Port of Cape Town, Russia, 2019
Color, 107 minutes
Director: Aleksandr Veledinskii
Screenplay: Aleksandr Veledinskii
Directors of Photography: Aleksei and Andrei Naidenov, Dmitrii Iashonkov
Production Design: Sergei Gudilin
Music: Aleksei Zubarev
Sound: Igor’ Gotsmanov, Maksim Molotkov, Nikita Ershov
Editing: Aleksandr and Igor’ Veledinskii, Tat’iana Prilenskaia
Producers: Vladimir Poliakov, Ruben Dishdishian, Vladimir Ignat’ev, Evgenii Uliushkin, Alena Alasheeva, Anton Kal’din, Aleksandra Raiskaia
Cast: Sergei Sosnovskii, Vladimir Steklov, Aleksandr Robak

Aleksandr Veledinskii: In the Port of Cape Town (V Keiptaunskom portu, Russia, 2019)

reviewed by Andrei Rogatchevski © 2020

Updated: 2020