KinoKultura: Issue 73 (2021)

Optimism and Amnesia: Russian films at the 43rd Moscow IFF

By Maksim Kazyuchits

The 43rd Moscow International Film Festival, which ran as a physical event from 22-29 April 2021 (the juries worked in mixed online / offline formats), presented an unexpected variety of Russian films. Apparently, the pandemic led to the fact that the films shown at the festival were overall mainstream: Relatives (Rodnye), Palm Tree (Pal’ma), Only Serious Relations (Tol’ko ser’eznye otnosheniia), Devyataev, and Liver, or the History of One Startup (Pechen’, ili istoriia odnogo startapa), and so forth. To the few films which are in keeping with the festival format belong Last “Dear Bulgaria” (Posledniaia ‘milaia Bol’gariia’) and Somebody Saw My Little Girl? (Kto-nibud’ videl moiu devchonku?). Despite strongly differing conceptual and artistic levels and budgets, Russian cinema of the period of the pandemic has obviously adapted to the new conditions of distribution and continues to function.

only serious relationsThe plot of the film Only Serious Relations (2021) by Slava (Viacheslav) Ross unfolds in modern Moscow, with the All-Russian State Institute of Cinematography (VGIK) as one of the key locations. Moreover, the main character, Sonya Chizhik (Alina Iukhnevich), is a first-year student of the directors’ faculty. And it so happened that precisely a first-year student from the provinces, dreaming to devote herself to making Russian fairy-tale films for children, realizes that love passes by. These thoughts come, however, not without the aid of Ninon, her friend at the institute, who acquaints the young, weak mind with the invented service “Twinkle,” which selects partners for relationships. And so, on Twinkle there appears an account of the young student-director. The block of Sonya’s various unsuccessful acquaintances is shown by means of a fashionable device in modern Russian cinema: the “kaleidoscope” in the style of the well-known ellipses from Orson Wells’ movie Citizen Kane (when the director shows how years of the protagonists’ marriage have gone by). The move is probably not the most original, but the gallery of psycho-types of modern Russian men from 18+ to 40+ is shown in a witty manner: there is a guy with excess weight, but on the photo he looks as young as Alain Delon; and there is the activist from some movement such as Greenpeace or the ecoterrorists: he comes to the meeting with Sonya to enlist her. At the same time this block gives an answer to the question how the heroine spends her days and why she plays truant at her skills classes at VGIK. 

only serious relationsThe choice of location and the plot require a minimal budget: VGIK is the main location, mainly the new building of the institute, which is made of glass and concrete, and with its ultra-modern shine reminds us of an unfinished skyscraper of Luzhkov’s Business Center, symbolizing modern Moscow which is feverishly under construction 24/7. The historical building of the institute appears somewhat out of place, although not quite: the facade with the monument to Shukshin, Tarkovsky and Shpalikov is too picturesque and has become the business card; therefore, separate collisions are resolved here. 

The teaser for the project boasts the stars of Russian cinema and television series, such as Aleksandr Robak (Kiss ’em All [Gor’ko], Kiss ’em All 2 [Go’rko 2], the series House Arrest [Domashnii arrest] and Storm), who plays Chizhik-dad; and Irina Pegova (The Stroll [Progulka], The Crew [Ekipazh], and Five Brides [Piat’ nevest]), who plays Chizhik-mum, a state employee who holds a post in the local Department of Internal Affairs. Sonya, and after her also the father, sometimes mention that they go to Moscow from hopelessness, tired of the military schedule at home that the mother established. 

With this motive of escape begins the line of Chizhik-dad, a line that only confirms the old Moscow truth that “Moscow doesn’t believe in tears.” Here is the father of the student, who has arrived in the capital, also falls victim to the Twinkle service. Sonya’s best friend Ninon becomes the reason of his moral degradation, a source of sexual dissoluteness (by the standard of the Russian provinces) and the point of leverage of his libido. She talks about her hyper-sexuality, that she has the “temperament of a chimpanzee.” However, knowing the spouse of Chizhik Sr., it is quite understandable why he decides to be delayed in Moscow and without hesitation falls morally, deeper than Alice in pursuit of the white rabbit. Chizhik-mum, as a true professional of her business, organizes the search of her husband who has disappeared in Moscow, and herself goes to the capital. 

only serious relationsHowever, Robak’s character makes another sharp turn. At the very moment when, according to the genre laws, the bed scene should commence with the temperamental student Ninon (anyway, shot with the bashfulness of a civil servant of the Ministry of Culture of the Russian Federation), Chizhik-dad finds himself in a rather unpleasant circumstance: a nerve is caught in the lumbar region; there follows an ambulance, then the Sklifosovsky Hospital for Medical Emergencies. Here, in the temple of the Russian Ministry of Health, the relatives are reunited. There is a harsh explication between Sonya’s parents (“You are toxic! I choke on you!” — admits Chizhik-dad and bursts into tears with a gush of feelings). However, the format of the story leaves no freedom of choice for the ending: a happy ending is inevitable. Sonya successfully shoots her coursework film, reconciles her parents and back in her hometown finds her beloved, whom she then brings to Moscow.

Nowadays we can say with confidence that the format of the All-Russian comedy has gained popularity and is targeted at the widest possible, poly-cultural and multi-ethnic audience. After the franchise Seven Degrees of Celebration (Yolki), Ice (Led) and Ice 2, etc., Russian cinema, of course with support of the Ministry of Culture and the Cinema Fund, tries to develop the concept of civil values and a civil Russian nation by means of cinema. The film is surely penetrated by a national, ethnic component: the Tajik yard-keeper carries out approximately the same function as the Afro-American in American comedies of the 1930s: he is comical and ridiculous, yet formally represents one of the minority communities of the country. Such characters are today successfully used by Zhora Kryzhovnikov. The yard keeper in Ross’s film is only an immigrant; for the moment, he is still flustered by the police and hasty, so for the first request from the representative of law and order he feels his pocket for the registration card. However, he obviously very much wants to become a Russian and, apparently, does so. His integration potential is extremely high. Meeting the inhabitants of the house where he sweeps the yard, the Tajik freely gets acquainted, offers first his business card, and then that of his brother who, of course, is a master of all trades: he can repair windows, fix the engine of the car, and in general do everything so that the life of Muscovites becomes more comfortable.

rodnyeThe blood relations, who have to pass a test in an existential situation, are the cornerstone of the film Relatives (Rodnye, 2021). If the director Il’ia Aksenov is a blank page so far in Russian cinema, the screenwriters of the project, Zhora Kryzhovnikov and Aleksei Kazakov, require no comment. Their tandem has created the films Kiss '’em All, Kiss 'em All 2, and The Best Day (Samyi luchshii den’) which, as a matter of fact, restarted the format of national mainstream cinema (in the spirit of the films of Aleksandr Rogozhkin and Nikolai Dostal’ during the 1990s), but they did so large-scale, spectacular and... pragmatic, in full accordance with the expectations of the state funding for national cinema. Relatives is a complete continuation of the poetics of Kryzhovnikov concerning masterly work with actors, accuracy of details, live speech, irony and, of course, stylization. The major role is played by another star of modern Russian cinema and TV, Sergei Burunov (Island [Ostrov], A Driver for Vera [Voditel’ dlia Very], the series The Police Officer from Rublyovka [Politseiskii s Rublevki], and House Arrest [Domashnii arrest]). His hero Karnaukhov represents the new type of the homo russicus, the Russian who is stuck between the poverty line and the middle class, but has not joined the party United Russia. A face like his can be a police officer, a businessman, and a teacher (physical culture), and almost the entire population of the Russian Federation (of course, male). As in the films Kiss '’em All and Kiss '’em All 2, the events develop on the periphery: Karnaukhov lives in Arkhangelsk, and his last journey takes him to the Samara region. 

The existential situation is shown in the exposition. The film begins with Kryzhovnikov’s favorite device of found footage: the imitation of a video blog (true, in the exposition this device also comes to an end). Karnaukhov records a message on his phone and says that everything in the world should be appreciated; not only people, but also each blade of grass, small insects and beetles. Without knowing, he practically formulates the principle of Buddhism Ahimsa, not to harm the living; although Tolstoi’s Platon Karataev, too, was close to Buddhism.

rodnyeHowever, the situation is explained soon: such a pathological love of the Russian man for nature, neighbors and the homeland has a medical name: a brain tumor; the hero has at most a year to live. Since the conclusion of oncology is obvious no fake, and Karnaukhov has carried out all the routine rituals of a Russian man (planted a tree, had a son, even several, and built a house), so there are only creative questions left. The main character also happens to be a bard and dreams of singing a song at the well-known Grushinsky festival of author’s song in the Samara region. The last in a lifetime performance, a swan song of a Russian man becomes the main event around which the film’s actions develop.

rodnyeAlthough Relatives has been filmed in the favorite Soviet format of a lyrical comedy, it also is a road movie. Karnaukhov bravely gathers his family, sits in his minivan, and goes to the place of the performance of his last song in a roundabout way. On the road he will visit the church, stop in the hometown of Saratov where he will visit the grave of his mother and take along his father Mikhail Moiseevich, with whom he had not spoken for 25 years because of the parent’s stern temper. The final happy ending is more refined than in Only Serious Relations: the son instead of the father sings the song at the festival, and Karnaukhov agrees to go to hospital.

The Moscow IFF did not get away without a black comedy: Ivan Snezhkin’s project Liver, or the History of One Startup (2019, release 2020). This film confirms that for Russia the aesthetics of the 1990s have become a steady fashion. Over the last years, several successful projects have been released, which have found audiences both in cinemas and at festivals. Among them, the debut film The Bull (Byk, 2019) by Boris Akopov; and the rollicking trash comedy in the style of Tarantino, Why Don't You Just Die! (Papa, sdokhni, 2018) by Kirill Sokolov; and finally, the no less picturesque story about a family reunion in the genre of the road movie by director Aleksandr Khant, How Vitka 'the Garlic' took Lekha 'the Stud' to the Nursing Home (Kak Vit’ka chesnok vez Lekhu shtyria v dom invalidov, 2017).

The plot of the film Liver is built on a predictable algorithm: three friends (in analogy to the series The Brigade/ Brigada) Vova, Mahmed and Lekha try to set up a business in the dashing 1990s, that is: they want to become bandits. The condition of the start-up is to get a new human liver for a local criminal authority (played by Sergei Makovetskii). The following story is built as a montage of attractions in its format. How such a format corresponds to one of the oldest international film festivals is a question that remains open.

kto nibudCinema, film studies and the dashing 1990s are three components of the new project of Angelina Nikonova, Has Anybody Seen My Little Girl? (Kto-nibud’ videl moiu devchonku?, 2020). Several years ago, the director literally broke into the Russian film festival circuit, coming directly from America and making her film Twilight Portrait (Portret v sumerkakh) with a reflex photo-camera. A few years ago, the Ministry of Culture of the Russian Federation adopted a new term (at least the author of this article has seen it in official reports on ministerial activity in 2016): art mainstream. However, this term designated Anna Melikyan’s films... Nikonova’s new film is made in much more traditional, patriarchal tones (probably this happened under the influence of the Ministry of Culture of the RF, one of sources for the budget of the project). A retrospective history about the dashing 1990s and the generation of the Russian middle class of 50+. The composition consists of two blocks: “before” (that is remote youth) and “after” (that is, a stable provided life, but absolutely deprived of any spice-up). “Before”— that is the Russia of the 1990s, underground film clubs, the center of intellectual and cultural life in St Petersburg, freedom of customs and intellectuality, mini-skirts and jackets with polo-neck-shirts underneath. Sergei (Aleksandr Gorchilin) and Kira (Ania Chipovskaia) are a typical love story of those years. He is a teacher, an intellectual, a director and in general a free personality, the typical Petersburg intellectual. She is a student on his course.

Further the plot develops according to a rigid gender scheme: a female muse, a female keeper of the center, who places her life on the altar of the male genius. A separate interest lies in the strategy which Nikonova uses when she creates the image of the Russian intellectual. First, this is the viewing of the European (!) cinema. In the exposition the protagonists watch Jean-Luc Godard’s A Bout de Souffle; Sergei, we notice, quite surely pronounces long texts of his lecture in the auditorium on the history of European and American cinema, which his future muse and love of his life Kira listens to with excitement. The further collision is typical for the 1990s: drug addiction, dissonance, disappointment and departure of the heroine from Russia.

“After” is the second thematic block of the film, the other part of the life of the protagonists and other performers. Kira is now one of the most in-demand actresses in modern Russian cinema—Victoria Isakova. She is the owner of a design office, she is free, independent, etc. Gorchilin’s hero forever remains young, he has died of drugs.

As a matter of fact, since the film is a flashback in time, Nikonova’s message is rather simple: reflections of a successful man about what you cannot buy for money: love, but most of all—youth. The time that has passed. Probably to achieve a bigger dramatic plot Nikonova has included an offscreen comment on behalf of Kira to give the trivial story a personal character.

milaya bolgariaThe retrospective and introspective lines at the 43rd Moscow IFF were continued by Aleksei Fedorchenko’s new film The Last “Dear Bulgaria” (2018, Russian premiere 2021; prize for best direction at Moscow IFF), representing Russia in the MIFF competition. The “psychoanalytic detective,” according to Fedorchenko’s comment at the press conference of the MIFF has been shot on the well-known autobiographical (and psychoanalytic) prose of Mikhail Zoshchenko, Before Dawn (Pered voskhodom solntsa). The work and its author have been ostracized; however, this story is well-known, and similar prosecution of creative writers were a widespread practice in Soviet Russia. During the writer’s lifetime, the novel had not been published, and in 1943 only the first chapters saw the light of the day, then followed a censorship embargo. Before Dawn is deeply introspective, indeed, a psychoanalytic research of the reasons of one’s own existential melancholy, which least of all corresponded to the literary tastes of the dictatorship of the proletariat, but also of wartime conditions. Such introspection cost Zoshchenko his career: he lost his place in the editorial office of the magazine Krokodil and was forced to leave Moscow, going into evacuation in Alma-Ata. As a matter of fact, in the time of evacuation the main events of The Last “Dear Bulgaria” unfold. The film, as well as the book, consists of two lines which are closely linked to each other. On the one hand, the story consisting of short story episodes from the life of the writer; on the other, his painful, intense process of reflection about himself in the USSR at the beginnings of the 1940s. It was impossible to unite all this in the film, of course. The director and the screenwriter Lidiya Kanashova spoke about this in detail at the press conference of MIFF. As a compromise, they introduced the new character-trickster Leonid Ets, who was not in the original, a young and seemingly ingenious selector, shaped by the memoirs of academician Michurin. 

milaya bolgariaThe world of the film is symbolical, from the scenery to the last prop. Therefore, there is nothing surprising in the fact that a similar concept of symbolical space has already been seen in Soviet and Russian cinema. The cozy communal apartment, moderately overloaded with markers of the era in which the selector should live, together with its inhabitants is amazingly similar to a nursing home and its inhabitants from Vadim Abdrashitov’s well-known film Parade of Planets (Parada planet, 1984). Fedorchenko has even another key motif of that film: amnesia. Abdrashitov’s character German Kostin (played by Oleg Borisov) meets an elderly woman who mistakes him for the son she has lost in the war. And the doctor asks him to play along, because the next day the woman will all the same have forgotten everything. “Optimists with bad memory,”—are the ideal inhabitants of the new Soviet world, and especially the creative specialists for the local district police officer Adalat.

However, the communal flat has been shown in much more ominous tones in Aleksei German’s well-known film Khrustalyov, My Car! (Khrustalev, mashinu!, 1998). Here is the same overload with things and people, the same claustrophobic atmosphere, a space impregnated with horror and hatred. Fedorchenko’s space causes horror much less, not least thanks to the different genre and the color palette; for the rest, before us is the same journey on a memory landscape, I would even say, the collective unconscious (in the spirit of Jung) of the Soviet creative intelligentsia.

milaya bolgariaThe detective and psychoanalytic line unfolds in these given circumstances: Ets, the young breeder, lives in a room which shortly before was occupied by Kurochkin (one of Zoshchenko’s pseudonyms), a writer who has suddenly disappeared. In the furnace, Ets finds the notebooks and diaries, from which emerges another reference to Zoshchenko and the manuscript of the well-known book, on the basis of which the film is made. The breeder tries to learn the writer’s destiny, and for this ungrateful task he has quite a romantic motivation: he is not indifferent to Olga, who also lives in the communal flat and who is suspected of the writer’s disappearance. So, to protect the lady’s honor and find the writer become things of the same order. A detective story with formal characters such as, for example, Citizen Kane, gives the director a chance to bring in the second line, but not only from Zoshchenko’s book. Fedorchenko widely uses memoirs and other documents to more fully reflect the spiritual condition of Soviet intellectuals in evacuation, and de facto, the spiritual condition of the people. For example, thus appeared the episode where Eisenstein (in the film he is called simply “director”) demands from Nikolai Cherkasov everything over and above and to raise the head higher so that on the opposite wall there would appear Ivan the Terrible’s well-known ominous profile. This dialogue has been borrowed from documentary footage and shorthand reports of filmmaking process. There is nothing surprising in the fact either that Eisenstein’s diary records also have appeared as a fine source both in respect of contents, and style, and the spirit of the age, and the paranormal.

milaya bolgariaThe logic of the genre—allegory—automatically changes also the way of viewing of this film. The semantic load concentrates not on history, but on numerous digressions, retreats, fragments of a mosaic, from which the frightening inner world of the Soviet intellectual living in an even more frightening reality is composed. There is nothing surprising in the fact that in one the interviews, Fedorchenko noted with regret that such a new world and such a new way of thinking have surprising connotations for the modern spiritual situation in Russia (Maliukova 2021).

Overall, the Russian films at MIFF seem to form quite a motley and inconsistent picture. If we exclude clear genre films, the remainder of the festival projects offers a rather predictable panorama. Creative artists of Russian cinema, at least in its festival segment, tensely compare the contemporary Russian reality to the historical past, which is not that remote. In this past the Russian / Soviet intellectual subordinated to the general law of collective and public life, and laws of this public life extended on his freedom to think. Today the marvelous new world of spiritual conformism advances in Russia, which is—as paradoxical as that may be—fashionable. 

Translated by Birgit Beumers

Maksim Kazyuchits
Moscow, VGIK

Works Cited
Maliukova, Larisa. 2021. "Vsem tvorchestvom Zoshchenko krichal: 'Ia svoi. A on ne svoi.'". Interview with Aleksei Fedorchenko. Novaia gazeta, 23 April

Maksim Kazyuchits © 2021

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Updated: 2021