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Aleksandr Veledinskii, Russian [Russkoe] (2004)

reviewed by Tony Anemone©2005

                  

 

Khar'kov, 1959.  An outdoor poetry reading in the central city square.  A young man reads his poetry to an attentive audience, while his friend lifts wallets from the pockets of the assembled poetry lovers.  Thus begins Aleksandr Veledinskiiís adaptation of the autobiographical prose of Eduard Limonov, the enfant terrible of the Russian emigration of the 1980s and, more recently, the founder and leader of the National-Bolshevik Party in post-Soviet Russia.  Based mostly on the second and third parts of Limonovís autobiographical trilogy about growing up on the mean streets of Khar'kov in the 1950s and 1960s (U nas byla velikaia epokha,   Podrostok Savenko, and Molodoi negodiai), Veledinskiiís Russian tells the story of the talented but poor young working class poet Eddie, his hooligan and criminal friends, and his love for the beautiful but mercenary Svetka.  Driven to petty crime and a half-hearted suicide attempt by his desperate desire to bed Svetka, Eddie ends up in the local psychiatric hospital, the famous Saburka, where painters and writers like Vrubel', Garshin, and Khlebnikov had been hospitalized in the past.  

At Saburka, Eddie experiences the worst and the best of Soviet life: brutalized by incompetent doctors and nurses, betrayed by his mother, but, in the end, saved by true friends and the promise of poetry.  Eddie also learns a bitter truth about his own past: his poor eyesight was probably the result of his motherís unsuccessful attempt to end her pregnancy.  Subjected to sadistic medical treatment intended to crush his spirit and mind, Eddie is fortunate to find an intellectual and artistic mentor in one of his fellow patients.  Between episodes of insanity in which he rips tiles from the bathroom walls, the quiet bookworm Sergei Olimpeevich reveals the hidden secrets of Russian literature, especially the poetry of Khlebnikov, to the curious Eddie.  During a brief escape from Saburka, Eddie achieves his dream of sleeping with Svetka, but, not surprisingly, it turns out to be a disappointment and anti-climax.  After they have sex, she tells him that he is too late: she is neither a virgin, nor in love with him.   

Rejected by the girl he loves, Eddie is betrayed a second time by his mother, who leads the police to his hideout.  But before he is captured and returned to Saburka, Eddie climbs to the top of a church tower to pray to God and the Devil that his life always be interesting, as in books, that he be a hero loved by everyone.  Back in Saburka, Eddie manages to get word to his hooligan friends about his treatment and, in a parody of the storming of the Winter Palace from Sergei Eisensteinís October (1928), they attack the hospital, demanding his release.  Frightened by this violent demonstration of solidarity, the hospital staff calls in a specialist to decide Eddieís case.  This Moscow psychiatrist, Arkhipov (Valerii Barinov), whose liberal sympathies are evident from the students who accompany him―an Asian woman and an African man―explains that Eddie is not truly suicidal, merely looking for attention from a world that has not shown him sufficient love, and orders his release.   The movie ends with Eddie leaving not only Saburka but also the illusions and lies of his prior life as a dutiful son and a sentimental lover: he re-enters the world sadder but wiser, knowing that he can rely on nothing but himself and his talent to survive.

 

Russian is the first full-length film directed by Aleksandr Veledinskii, previously known as the director of the prize-winning short The Two of Us (Ty da ia, da my s toboi, 2001) and a scriptwriter for TV serials such as Long Distance Truckers (Dal'noboishchiki, 2001), The Brigade (Brigada, 2002), and The Law (Zakon, 2002), which he also directed.  Raised in a working class neighborhood of Gor'kii in the 1960s, Veledinskii would seem the right person to bring to the big screen Limonovís portrait of the artist as a young urban hooligan.  He certainly has recreated the look and feel of working class life in a provincial Soviet city in the Khrushchev period: not only the cramped communal apartments, cheap cafes, and gray public spaces, but the nighttime haunts of the local criminals and hooligans, and, especially, the squalid ward (tikhaia palatka) of the mental hospital.  And while the cinematography shows every sign of the filmís origins as a television serial, the director shows a steady hand in directing the excellent ensemble of actors he has put together, including both well-known veterans (Evdokima Germanovna and Mikhail Efremov as Eddieís parents, Aleksei Gorbunov as the criminal Gorkun, Dmitrii Diuzhev as the drunken Slavka) and some noteworthy newcomers (Andrei Chadov as Eddie and Ol'ga Arntgol'ts as Svetka). 

       

Nevertheless, Veledinskii is less successful at capturing the essence of Limonovís prose and the character of his autobiographical hero, Eddie Savenko.  There are several reasons for this.  First, despite some posturing, Andrei Chadovís Eddie is simply too nice, too intelligentnyi, to be convincing as Limonovís nasty alter-ego.  It is impossible, for example, to imagine Chadov groping girls in the school restroom or participating in a gang rape, as Limonovís hero does in Podrostok Savenko.  Even when Chadov turns violent, it is likely to be for a good cause, as when he defends a drunken woman who is being manhandled by the local militia.  Further, in reducing the almost constant obscenities (mat) of Limonovís prose to a bare minimum, Veledinskiiís screenplay has achieved the dubious distinction of creating a PG-13 version of an X-rated writer.

A more subtle problem arises from Veledinskiiís decision to abandon the ironic double-voiced narrative of Limonovís prose.  In the trilogy, the voice of an older and wiser Limonov constantly comments directly to the reader on the flaws and limitations of his adolescent self.  The best example of this can be seen by comparing Veledinskiiís version of Eddieís prayer in the church bell tower with the scene as written in Molodoi negodiai.  As soon as the literary Eddie finishes his prayer, in which he mentions Goetheís Faust and Maturinís Melmoth the Wanderer, the mature Limonov asks the readerís forgiveness for the ďcomic and pretentious ... Classical RomanticismĒ of his young hero.   But by presenting the scene exclusively from the perspective of the immature Eddie, the movie does not allow for the ironic separation between hero and narrator, which is a central element of Limonovís style.  Compounding the problem, Veledinskii uses non-diegetic music to reintroduce a rather crude irony into scenes like the New Yearís Eve dinner of Eddieís parents, in which the Soviet National Anthem plays as the parents sit forlornly at the dinner table and Eddie languishes in Saburka. 

Veledinskii has noted several times in interviews that his film was never intended as a complete version of Limonovís trilogy, but is based ďon themes (po motivam) from Limonovís worksĒ, as he argues in an interview with Oleg Sul'kin. Nevertheless, it is impossible not to notice or to mention the radical differences between Limonovís and Veledinskiiís treatment of the central theme of the portrait of the artist as a young man.  While Limonov establishes a clear geographical, chronological, and stylistic separation between the randy young hooligan Eddie (in Podrostok Savenko) and Eddie-baby as the stiliaga and bohemian hero (of Molodoi negodiai), Veledinskii conflates the two.  This is important because while Limonovís hero is born into a brutal working class neighborhood on the outskirts of Khar'kov (Podrostok Savenko), he becomes a poet as the result of experiences and acquaintances gained over a period of years living in the cityís bohemian center (Molodoi negodiai).  In Veledinskiiís drastically condensed version of Eddieís life, Saburka, not Khar'kovís surprisingly vital bohemian scene in the late 1950s and early 1960s, plays the critical role in his becoming a poet.  Veledinskiiís version of the repression of the talented individual in the Soviet asylum and of the true poet branded as a madman by a philistine and uncomprehending society is as familiar as any clichť.  But it is the directorís clichť, not the authorís.  For Limonov, poetry comes from the courage of the non-conformist and the criminal rather than in the vision of the madman.  Veledinskiiís decision to substitute a simple and familiar clichť for a more complex and interesting reality is especially regrettable because the story of Eddie-Babyís adventures in bohemian Khar'kov in the Khrushchev years has the makings of an even more interesting film than Russian.

 

Tony Anemone, College of William and Mary 

 


Russian [Russkoe] (Russia, 2004)

Color, 112 minutes

Director: Aleksandr Veledinskii

Script: Aleksandr Veledinskii, based on the novels of Eduard Limonov

Cinematography: Pavel Ignatov

Art Direction: Il'ia Amurskii:

Music: Aleksei Zubarev

Cast: Andrei Chadov, Aleksei Gorbunov, Ol'ga Arntgol'ts, Vladimir Steklov, Dmitrii Diuzhev, Evdokima Germanovna, Mikhail Efremov, Viktor Rakov, Valerii Barinov

Producers: Masim Lagashkin, Aleksandr Robak, Aleksei Aliakin, Natal'ia Malysheva

Production: Sinemafor, Trial Blok, with the support of Pygmalion Productions and the Cinematography Section of the Russian Ministry of Culture


Aleksandr Veledinskii, Russian [Russkoe] (2004)

reviewed by Tony Anemone©2005

15/04/05