Pavel Lungin: Roots (Bednye rodstvenniki), 2005

reviewed by Michelle Kuhn© 2006

Pavel Lungin’s latest film was the runaway award winner at the Kinotavr Russian Open Film Festival earlier this year. In addition to Best Film, it received the Purse Award of the Kuban Territory Governor and the Audience Award. Gennady Ostrovskii took the prize for Best Screenplay and Konstantin Khabenskii shared the award for Best Actor for his leading role as Edik. For her role as Ester, a loving sister reunited with her brother after approximately 65 years, Esther Gorinthin secured a Special Mention from the jury, which, failing to recognize her as a professional, denied her the prize for Best Actress.

The fact that the jury awarded Roots numerous prizes indicates not so much the merit of the film as an unfortunate lack of quality films in general. At Kinotavr filmmakers and film critics alike were preoccupied with the question of foreign film audiences. They expressed concern that Russian cinema has lost popularity abroad and fear that foreign audiences, unable to interpret or properly understand Russian films, might generalize the impressions gathered during a film screening and get the wrong idea altogether about Russia and Russianness. Such discussions—apart from failing to credit foreign viewers with being capable of distinguishing lived from cinematic realities—seemed ultimately to hallucinate the kind of national cinema in which Russians films would be produced exclusively for Russian audiences, and criticism would become primarily apologetic: only bona fide Russians, complete with all the necessary cultural baggage, would be equipped to forgive—after brutal critique—weak films.

The question of foreign film audiences should have been secondary given the conditions of the gathering; to name just a couple: for the first time since 1994, Kinotavr was an all-Russian (plus one Tatar) film festival, and, though the bill was crammed with numerous (successful) Russian takes on popular Hollywood action flicks and comedies―Aleksei Sidorov’s Shadow Boxing (Boi s ten'iu, 2005), Aleksei Balabanov’s Dead Man’s Bluff (Zhmurki, 2005)―it also included films that had already received international acclaim, like Ilia Khrzhanovskii’s 4 (2004). Despite this, however, most films, these included, disappointed Russian and foreign critics alike. Though internationally famous émigré director Pavel Lungin’s Roots boasts a star-studded cast and attractive cinematography―Mikhail Krichman of Andrei Zviagintsev’s The Return (Vozvrashchenie, 2003) certainly over-fulfilled his duty―this tragicomedy was no exception.

As the Russian title (literally, “poor relatives”) of Lungin’s film suggests, the story concerns the encounters between poor and wealthy relatives. The film’s irony in part relies on the deconstruction of the term “poor relatives” with its loaded cultural meaning. Neither the new configuration of the relationship, nor the film’s humor exhibit any real depth. Traditionally, of course, the poor relatives journey to find their wealthy uncles and aunts, who would often take in their less fortunate kin as servants. The film treats this event in its more contemporary manifestation: wealthy and middle-class émigrés who have made it in the new lands (the Americas, Israel) return to the homeland, to the roots from which they were severed. The implicit motivation for their return is the search for spiritual nourishment, and so the émigrés sacrifice the material comforts of their villas and Western civilization to journey to their ancestral past, the timeless village of Golotvin. They believe that here they will be able to complete themselves by reconnecting with their heritage. All for the nominal fee of…

The thematic and stylistic balances of the film are basically the same: falseness and authenticity, illusion and reality. The dramatis personae are divided between those concealing their true identities and motivations and those who are victimized by the others’ deception. Edik is a free agent who orchestrates an elaborate crime with the intention of earning a pile of money by tricking a group of tourist-pilgrims into thinking that a small (now Ukrainian) village is their homeland and its inhabitants are their long lost relatives. The levels of deception soon multiply, however. The town’s mayor/crime lord gets involved. Several of the visitors, it turns out, have their own secret, sordid agendas. The townspeople sell their souls for a little dough, agree to play along in tricking the rich foreigners, and then battle their consciences—or not. The opposition is much more interesting as a stylistic device; the film is a visually stunning example of magical realism. Golutvin is sugar-coated; shot in vibrant colors, with distorting lenses, and even with an underwater sequence the film reinforces the illusionary reality of Golutvin.

The film singles out capitalism as a social ailment. It initially seems that capitalism is a purely foreign disease brought to Golutvin by outsiders, but it soon reveals itself to be more like a rampant cancer; wild capitalism has corrupted every institution. Small-time crooks, like Edik, and organized crime bosses, such as the mayor of Golutvin, both reinforce and rely on the capitalist system. Edik finds his commodity in the village Golutvin, the spelling of which bears a close resemblance to Golotvin, the actual hometown of the returning émigrés. The mayor temporarily loans the town in exchange for Edik forking over the income he earns on the scheme. The truly cellular, cancerous spread of capitalism, however, becomes evident in the phenomenon that might be advertised as “families for sale.”

The émigrés, each with varying degrees of genuine interest, seek essentially to buy their family heritage. The wealthy Barukh has purchased his roots with extreme faith in the exchange: he wants to bury his mother in her birthplace. A French estrada diva bails out at the last minute and sends her adolescent son in her stead. Most of the townspeople, it fortuitously happens, are eager to be bought. A native of Golutvin agrees to act in the performance Edik organizes in exchange for a bit more money she can put away for her son. She is one of only two characters who rethink their sale; the other is the old man who refuses to play the part of a traitor to the motherland. Unfortunately for them, it is simply too late to renegotiate. Perhaps the most ironic twists on the evils of capitalism involve those natives who buy into the scheme. Iasha (Sergei Garmash) suspects Sima, a man with residences in multiple desirable international locations, of trying to pass himself off as Edit’s brother in order to inherit her estate. Iasha’s wife hopes that the fantasy of a wealthy benefactor taking the family to a faraway land will come true. The tragic aspect of the film emerges from the rift in higher (family) values caused by capitalism.

Roots is the director’s return to the Jewish theme that runs through his earlier films―Taxi Blues (Taksi-bliuz, 1990), Luna Park (1992), and most recently, Tycoon (Oligarkh, 2003). The film problematically addresses Jewishness in close connection to the critique of capitalism. Edik’s criminality derives from the tired anti-Semitic stereotype of the Jew as a greedy, sly money-shark. He is constantly negotiating the price of his actors, and more than once he reminds his clients how much money they owe him up front and how much later. He has also forsaken his own family (he is estranged from his son) for a life of crime and money. In fact, he is repelled by the bonds of kinship. The beginning and the end of the film are two parts of the final moment of the narrative in which Edik is punished for his crime by a bigger, badder criminal. Regina, who has fallen madly in love with Edik and has left her husband, has just saved him from a watery grave. Terrified by Regina’s threats of a future together and numerous children, Edik promptly jumps back into the lake. The content of the scene reiterates what the story’s circular structure has already cued: nothing has changed. Barukh, an Israeli mafioso, adds another level that the film absorbs into its moralizing tragedy when he justifies killing with a reason (as opposed to senseless murder). It is Barukh who punishes Edik, weighing him down with concrete and tossing him in the lake. He also manages over the course of the film to bite off a villager’s ear, encourage killings, and, like Edik, chase skirts.

When the film is not drawing its tragicomedic moments from the low moral values of its characters, it finds them in characters that aspire to loftiness by ridiculous means. A young Canadian visitor misguidedly attempts to avenge his ancestors’ murder by knifing his twice-false grandfather, whom he takes for the traitor who ratted out his family to the Nazis during WWII. When the old man learns he must pretend to be a traitor, he stages a dramatic scene and tries to kill himself à la Anna Karenina. In a philosophical moment at the dinner table Iasha tries to explain―to the newly arrived Sima―the difference between Jews and “yids” to the horror of the rest of his dinner companions. His anti-Semitic self-loathing, much like his spousal abuse, attempted murder, and insanity induced by the revelation of the impermanence and deception of Soviet ideology, is intended for laughs.

The real tragedy of the film is located not in the string of problems caused by mistaken identities, but rather in the film’s failure to destabilize the offensive ethnic stereotypes it has integrated into its characterizations. Perhaps this Russian film, which relies on the antics of wacky Jews as its source of comedy, truly is comprehensible only to Russians. If this contemporary film about a contemporary story is considered in terms of the historical attitude towards Jews in the Russo-Soviet context, little seems to have changed. Though the film targets capitalism as a social ill, it seems to have failed to escape from its clutches, relying on a story that has been a major seller for hundreds of years.

Michelle Kuhn (University of Pittsburgh)

Roots, Russia and France, 2005
Color, 104 minutes
Director: Pavel Lungin
Screenplay: Gennadii Ostrovskii
Cinematography: Mikhail Krichman
Art Director: Sergei Bzhestovskii
Cast: Konstantin Khabenskii, Sergei Garmash, Leonid Kanevskii, Daniil Spivakovskii, Marina Golub, Natal'ia Koliakanova, Esther Gorinthin, Otto Tausig, Gregoire Leprince-Ringuet
Producers: Pavel Lungin, Catherine Dussart, Ol'ga Vasil'eva
Production: SDR, Arte France Cinema, Oniks

Pavel Lungin: Roots (Bednye rodstvenniki), 2005

reviewed by Michelle Kuhn© 2006

Updated: 14 Jan 06