Issue 74 (2021)

Anastasiia Pal’chikova: Masha (2020)

reviewed by Daria V. Ezerova © 2021

mashaAnastasiia Pal’chikova’s debut Masha is a coming-of-age story set in the much-vilified 1990s. Masha (Polina Gukhman), a precocious thirteen-year-old, lives in a small town run by her gangster uncle, alias the “Godfather” (Maksim Sukhanov), and his gang. Despite the grimy surroundings and the many gunshots she overhears, Masha is a vivacious girl, obsessed with singing jazz. The mellifluous voices of Etta James and Ella Fitzgerald are strikingly at odds with the goings-on in the town: the murder of her friend Treshka, which she witnesses; her own kidnapping, which she miraculously survives; and unending gang dealings. All she wants is to sing and spend time with her boyfriend Serezha. The story takes a tragic turn when the Godfather puts out a hit on Masha’s absent father. Andrei, one of the Godfather’s henchmen, sets Masha’s father’s apartment on fire, not knowing that Masha’s mother is also there. Masha is thus orphaned by her own uncle. Fast-forward to 2020, and an elegant adult Masha (Anna Chipovskaia) is a renowned jazz singer in Moscow, performing Édith Piaf’s “La vie en rose” at a jazz club. There, she runs into Andrei, now owner of several concert halls across Russia, who invites her to perform in her hometown. He confesses to her that it was he who killed her parents, on the Godfather’s orders. Masha agrees to perform at Andrei’s venue where, minutes away from going on stage, she shoots the elderly Godfather in a parking garage. “Heaven… I’m in heaven, / And my heart beats so that I can hardly speak”—she sings ecstatically, laughing and dancing around the stage.

mashaPal’chikova’s film, which received the Best Debut award at Kinotavr in 2020, is part of a broader trend amongst millennial filmmakers from the former Soviet Union. Along with Daria Zhuk’s Crystal Swan (Khrustal’, Belarus, 2018), Kantemir Balagov’s Closeness (Tesnota, 2017), and, most recently, Boris Akopov’s The Bull (Byk, 2019), Masha speaks of a renewed interest in the 1990s, i.e., the childhood years of these filmmakers. The film that is particularly close to Masha is perhaps Akopov’s The Bull. These films have a similar visual language and even share an actor, Sergei Dvoinikov, whose striking visage and buzzcut make him a perfect casting choice for a nineties’ drama. But Pal’chikova’s film is more nuanced and its overall intellectual project is more sophisticated than Akopov’s. Instead of taking the usual route, foregrounding 1990’s cinematic tropes like extended shoot-outs or massive gold chains around bulging necks, Pal’chikova draws out subtler details that marked the decade. Her most ingenious find is a scene in a movie theater where Masha and Treshka are watching Gone with the Wind (dir. Victor Fleming, 1939). The film was a sensation in Russia, having been dubbed only in 1990. Pal’chikova never shows the screen, nor gives any character names from Fleming’s film. The viewers only hear “I’ll never be hungry again. If I have to lie, steal, cheat or kill. As God is my witness, I’ll never be hungry again,” but it is enough for anyone who grew up in Russia in the 1990s to immediately recognize the film the protagonists are watching. This and other subtle touches conjure up the atmosphere of the first post-Soviet decade particularly well. Yet, the real innovation in Pal’chikova’s approach comes from her choice of the central protagonist: she explores the turbulent decade through the eyes of an adolescent—and more importantly, a girl.

mashaThere has been relatively little interest in female subjectivity in mainstream Russian cinema as well as a large proportion of arthouse films in recent years. This is particularly true of films set in the 1990s: for over twenty years, these films have been the domain of unrestrained machismo. A handful of recent exception include the above-mentioned Closeness and Crystal Swan, and now also Masha. Looking at the 1990s through the eyes of a young girl offers an original viewing experience for Pal’chikova’s audience. Polina Gukhman, who plays young Masha, has a talent and professionalism uncommon in young actors. While both Sukhanov and Chipovskaia—the big stars in the cast—are convincing in their roles, Gukhman is the dynamo that energizes the entire film. The complexity with which she endows her character makes it hard to understand to what extent Masha is aware of what is going on around her. She is intelligent, talented, whip-smart, and absolutely fearless—yet, it is rarely clear how she makes sense of the world around her. She is used to hearing gunshots but never asks who fired them and at whom. She knows that murder is morally reprehensible, yet she genuinely enjoys the company of Treshka, who has killed in the past. This confusing attitude reaches its highest point when she is held hostage by the Godfather’s rivals. Instead of any semblance of fear, she offers to sing to her kidnappers. Keeping time by rocking the chair she is tied to against the concrete floor, she breaks into Peggy Lee’s “Fever.” The function of this bizarre response within the film’s logic is unraveled in a similar episode at the end of the film, when the Godfather tries to comfort little Masha after the death of her parents and Masha laughs uncontrollably. In sum, Pal’chikova makes a stronger statement about the 1990s: the normalization of violence did not mean the elimination of trauma, especially in those who were children in those years. Masha may sing, “Heaven, I’m in heaven”, but she is in hell and, on some level, she knows it.

mashaThe film’s examination of the transitional post-Soviet years is reinforced through Masha’s age. Halfway through the film, she turns thirteen, and the madness of the world around her is paired with the destabilizing effects of puberty. This is particularly important for Pal’chikova, as evidenced by the extended scene in which Masha gets her first period in the beginning of the film. To my knowledge, Masha is the first of recent Russian films to show menstrual blood, making this scene a central moment in the story. From here on, the everyday shocks of Masha’s world are combined with a teenager’s “problems”: how to get a boy to like you, how to get your mother off your back, how to appear older than you are. Unfortunately, she does not get to experience any of this for a long time. After her parents are murdered, she instantly becomes an adult—an effect emphasized by a cut to the future. The death of Masha’s parents ends the part of the story set in the 1990s, and we next encounter her as an adult in the 2020s. This jump in time—or rather, a circling forward, as the film begins with an image of an adult Masha—has broader significance for Russian cinema’s interest in the 1990s today.

mashaMillennial filmmakers rediscovering the decade of their childhood/adolescence begs the inevitable question: do they see the first post-Soviet decade as being long gone and disconnected from present-day Russia? The question becomes particularly acute when considered alongside official political discourse that sees the 1990s as a dark past, something that has been vanquished by the current government. Popular support of the current government is thus presented as vital, the absence of which risks returning Russia to a decadent 90s-esque state. Pal’chikova denies this vision: the gangsters of the 1990s, as is shown by the reappearance of alive-and-well Andrei and the Godfather at the end of the film, became the entrepreneurs of the 2000s-2020s. A certain intimacy which characterizes Masha suggests that Pal’chikova may not have aimed for a scathing political critique in her film. Masha’s private vendetta at the end of the film is not the same as the end of, for instance, Dead Man’s Bluff (Zhmurki, dir. Aleksei Balabanov, 2005), which shows former 1990’s gangsters as “respectable” members of Parliament in 2005. But by refusing to seal off the first post-Soviet decade, Pal’chikova makes it all the more apparent that Russia today is the natural product of the 1990s.

Daria V. Ezerova
Columbia University

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Masha, Russia, 2020
Color, 85 minutes
Director: Anastasiia Pal’chikova
Screenplay: Anastasiia Pal’chikova
Cinematography: Gleb Filatov
Editing: Ivan Baryshev, Mukharam Kabulova
Cast: Anna Chipovskaia, Maksim Sukhanov, Sergei Dvoinikov, Polina Gukhman, Iris Lebedeva, Aleksandr Mizev
Producers: Ruben Dishdishian, Valerii Fedorovich, Evgenii Nikishov
Production: 1-2-3 Production, Mars Media

Anastasiia Pal’chikova: Masha (2020)

reviewed by Daria V. Ezerova © 2021

Updated: 2021