Kirill Serebrennikov: Yuriev Day (Iur'ev Den', 2008)

reviewed by Andrei Plakhov© 2008

An ironical collectivist community (sobornost' )[1]

The program of this year's Kinotavr has highlighted a rift among Russian art-house films, which formed at some stage a more or less homogeneous whole. On the one hand, films such as Bakur Bakuradze's Shultes (the festival winner), Igor' Voloshin's Nirvana and Valeriia Gai-Germanika's Everyone Dies But Me (Vse umrut, a ia ostanus' ) are all somehow connected to fashionable trends in European cinema, above all to the new, para-documentary realism concerned with overcoming the borders between document and fiction.

It is thus no chance occurrence that these films (such as Sergei Dvortsevoi's Tulpan, the fiction film debut of the well-known documentary filmmaker) have been successful on the festival circuit in Cannes and Berlin, where they received awards and recognition. To this group also belongs Anna Melikian's Mermaid (Rusalka, 2007)—shown in Sundance and other prestigious festivals, which is an urban fairy tale immersed into the dramatic context of a modern, Russian megapolis. Perhaps these festival films are closest to foreign art-house audiences.

On the other hand, there are films which the FIPRESCI's General Secretary Klaus Eder called “Russian-Russian”, that is doubly Russian, at a critics' round table in Sochi. As an example he named Kirill Serebrennikov's Yuriev Day, based on a script by Iurii Arabov: a parable about an opera diva who, before leaving the country for good, decides to visit her native village. The air of that native land literally soaks up first her twenty-year-old son, who disappears without a trace, and then the heroine herself, who —after some unsuccessful attempts to find her son—remains at the place where he disappeared and where she was once born. The development of this story can be interpreted in a number of ways: as a punishment for arrogance, as the deification of an attachment to the soil, and maybe as an ironical squaring of accounts with a hostile space—so to say, a patriotic tragic -comedy .

To do justice in interpreting this multi-layered film, we have to abandon internal clichés, which is a rather difficult task even for skilled professionals. A foreign guest at Kinotavr expressed her genuine her bewilderment: in the new Russian films—perfectly shot, with excellent acting and huge budgets—she could not detect enough of something important that she was used to and expected to find. For example, the formulaically styled image of the Russian winter: indeed, the overwhelming majority of Russian films is shot during the summer, and thus the winter landscape of Serebrennikov's film is a striking difference.

This film has been long-awaited in Russia—with genuine interest by some, with the secret hope for a flop by others: in our envious professional community such a hope always accompanies unexpected success, as is true for the success of such “upstarts” as Aleksandr Sokurov in his time or, more recently, Andrei Zviagintsev. Such an unexpected success was Kirill Serebrennikov's Playing the Victim (Izobrazhaia zhertvu), which two years ago won the main prize at Kinotavr and a large monetary award at the First Film Festival in Rome. Despite the reputation of Moscow's most trendy theater director and despite the fact that he was no newcomer to cinema (having already made two or three films), Serebrennikov was only then born as a filmmaker and subjected to increased media attention, having his every gesture literally x-rayed.

The film, based on Iurii Arabov's script, has been completed. Although both scriptwriter and director belong to the avant-garde, Yuriev Day can be called a “conservative” film as it gravitates towards major themes and grand epic style while remaining a monodrama. Amongst Arabov's works, which are on the one hand filled by the aspiration to a profound, even archaically orthodox belief and on the other hand by scepticism and doubt characteristic of the modern artist, this script stands next to another one, entitled The Horror that is always with you (Uzhas, kotoryi vsegda s toboi, dir. Arkadii Iakhnis, 2007). The action of both scripts occurs in an unspecified present that still bears the traces of the economic and everyday chaos of the 1990s, which turns in front of our eyes into an eternal, mythological time where Mother Russia from time immemorial remains central, despite all revolutions and temptations of progress.

Both of Arabov's scripts contain an element of everyday mysticism and even existential horror that transpires through the density of a banal life and that remains incomprehensible and frightening although it is provided with some rational explanation. The scripts are share a poisonous image of social institutions: family, education system, wild markets (literally and figuratively), trade and business, army and special forces, religions and churches, rehabilitation centers and medical institutions, police and other law enforcement bodies. Even if some of these appear in the scriptwriter's field of vision only for a brief moment, we sense his uneasy, often critical attitude through hints and context.

The Horror that is always with you seems deeper and more radical. It forcefully portrays the defenselessness of the Soviet intellectual (a group that Iurii Arabov himself belongs to) before the totalitarian system, although this system has appreciably changed during the era of free markets and the rehabilitation of Orthodoxy. Especially impressive is the merger of special forces and the church (a phenomenon of our time reminiscent of the inquisition) and the influence of new methods of psychological zombie-ing (NLP, or neuro-linguistic programming), which explains the growth of the mass-media. The Horror that is always with you was directed by Arkadii Iakhnis, but many important ideological themes of the script were simplified in his screen translation, which lacks artistic depth.

The script of Yuriev Day looks weak in comparison, although it has the indisputable quality seal of Arabov's writing. It contains some directly articulated ideas about the collective community of the intelligentsia with the people (sobornost'). Although Iurii Arabov denies this and says that the script is not at all about that— forgive me, but then what else is it about? Of course it contains a range of other themes and meanings, but the main subject line is nevertheless connected to the return of a heroine who has been “separated from her roots” to the bosom of the people. I could not detect any special irony in Arabov's case.

The film evokes another impression. The well-known opera singer Liuba arrives in the wintry, snow-shrouded town of Yuriev (the district of Iur'ev-Pol'skii) “to say goodbye to her native land” (incidentally, the first title for Arabov's script was “Diva”). She grew up in this place and now, before her final departure to take up residence in Austria, she goes there for nostalgic reasons with her son, a bit of an oaf, who is hugely irritated by his mother's Chekhovian aspirations and outbursts of Blok's verses. This guy , who is actually a variant of the hero of Playing the Victim, is ready to send his ancestors off to the other world.

However, there is a completely different collision: during the excursion across the local Kremlin where the mother shouts from the bell tower “Oh my Russia! My wife!” and “I'm a seagull!”, the son just vanishes from the surface of the earth. He disappears without a trace (and the film even offers some statistics on this topic), like tens of thousands of people across Russia. Thus the heroine does not go anywhere from Yuriev. The film turns into a monodrama, which Kseniia Rappoport plays with a surprising sense of tragi -comedy and which is perfectly captured in the images of cameraman Oleg Lukichev.

The image of eternal Russia shrouded in fog and submerged in a winter snowstorm acquires another dimension: not an everyday one, but a metaphysical one. Serebrennikov strengthens the evangelical elements contained in the script (“Pietà”) and introduces new ones (the "burning bush" in which Jesus appeared to Moses). However, the irony of the director's concept and of the heroine's acting prevents the emergence of an image of Russia as center of spirituality and national morality. Perhaps Iurii Arabov, Kirill Serebrennikov and Kseniia Rappoport (who deserves to be listed as co-author of this “epic monofilm”) had grand ideas about an encyclopedia of modern Russia, but they created an ambivalent image that everyone reads differently. As the saying goes: grandma twice said the same thing; the same grandma of the old Russian phrase “There you go, grandma, here's Yuri's Day”—the words which sealed the final enslavement and enserfment of peasant, who—until the imperial decree of the late 16th century —could pass from one owner to another on that day.

It is possible to see in the film a critique of the intelligentsia turning itself into the bourgeoisie and challenging it to remember that it has a responsibility before the people. Or it may even be an apologia of Christian humility, of the dissolution in the collective (sobornost'). Personally I cannot follow such a conclusions because of the irony which penetrates both the direction and the acting (not only Kseniia Rappoport's excellent performance, but also that of Evgeniia Kuznetsova and Sergei Sosnovskii).

Admittedly, Serebrennikov does not sustain this tone consistently during the entire film, and there is a stylistic break somewhere in the middle of the film. If the scenes in the Kremlin, in the monastery, and at the police station are performed in a unified, profoundly cinematic style, then the scenes depicting the ward with the tuberculosis-infected criminals where Liuba finds her new “criminal” son betray an openly sinful theatrical symbolism that borders on dangerous taste.

However, the ending puts everything back in place. The irony is especially obvious in last scene when Liuba comes to the church and her stage opera voice amalgamates with the quiet polyphony of the church choir. We see the women's faces filled with a sense of religion, but an ironic contrast is created through their uniformly dyed and neatly combed red hair. As it happens, Yuriev has received a delivery of a cheap dye called “Intimate Minium”: both the name of the dye (invented by Arabov) and the accent that Serebrennikov puts on this provincial fashion resolutely transpose the entire situation of religious repentance onto the level of the grotesque.

An important role is also played by Kseniia Rappoport's Semitic appearance, which does not quite fit into the “orthodox choir” of Slavic faces. Our sanctimonious people sensed this when they accused Serebrennikov of disagreement with the canon. If the film contains a religious message, then it is an ecumenical one, maybe with a Buddhist accent on the idea of the change of fate (while working on the film Serebrennikov completed a journey to Tibet).

The native land sucks in and absorbs those who come to repent, demanding unreasonable sacrifices. In his attempt at grand style Kirill Serebrennikov remains if not an avant-garde artist, then a modernist, subjecting any impulse, including the most noble one, to skepticism and doubt.

Translated by Birgit Beumers

Andrei Plakhov

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1] For a definition of the term, see Catrional Kelly and Vadim Volkov in Kelly and Shepherd (eds), Constructing Russian Culture, Oxford, OUP 1998, p. 26. [translator's note]

Yuriev Day, (alternative titles Yuri’s Day, St George’s Day) Russia, 2008.
Color, 135 min.
Director Kirill Serebrennikov
Scriptwriter Iurii Arabov
Director of Photography Oleg Lukichev
Production Design Iurii Grigorovich
Costume Design Irina Grazhdankina
Composer Sergei Nevskii
Sound Tilo Feinermann
Editing Olga Grinshpun
Cast: Kseniia Rappoport, Evgeniia Kuznetsova, Sergei Sosnovskii, Roman Shmakov, Sergei Medvedev, Igor Khripunov,
General Producer Natasha Mokritskaia
Producer Ul’iana Savel’eva
Co-Producers Mila Rozanova, Karsten Stoeter, Benny Drechsel
Production: Film Company “New People”, with participation of Rohfilm (Germany), “National Reserve Corporation”
Financial support from the Federal Agency of Culture and Cinematography of the Russian Federation, Mitteldeutsche Medienförderung (MDM)

Kirill Serebrennikov: Yuriev Day (Iur'ev Den', 2008)

reviewed by Andrei Plakhov© 2008

Updated: 15 Oct 08