KinoKultura: Issue 30 (2010)

Films for an Optimist: Saying “Yes” to Life at the 32nd Moscow IFF

By Alyssa DeBlasio (Dickinson College)

Russian cinema was noticeably absent from the competition programs of the Moscow International Film Festival 2010. The only Russian contender in the main program was documentary filmmaker Iurii Shiller’s Sparrow (Vorobei, 2010), an idealized picture of life and triumph in the provinces. There was also only one Russian submission to the “Perspectives” competition: Iurii Feting’s Russian-Tatar co-production Bibinur (2009), which documents the life of an old woman from childhood to death. These numbers were a marked difference from the 2009 festival, which featured over twice as many Russian films in competition and where Russian cinema took most of the festival’s awards. Of the three Russian films in the 2009 main competition (of sixteen total films), the Main Prize was awarded to Nikolai Dostal'’s Petia on the Way to Heaven (Petia po doroge v tsarstvo nebesnoe, 2009), the Special Jury Prize to Aleksandr Proshkin’s Miracle (Chudo, 2009), and the award for Best Actor to Vladimir Il'in in Karen Shakhnazarov’s Ward № 6 (Palata № 6, 2009). If we include Kira Muratova’s Russian-language, Ukrainian-produced Melody for a Barrel Organ (Melodiia dlia sharmanki, 2009), then to this list we must add the award for Best Actress, won by twelve-year-old Lena Kostiuk (Melody for a Barrel Organ also won the festival’s FIPRESCI prize). In 2010, however, fans of Russian cinema had to rely on the all-Russian program held annually at the House of Cinema, which included twenty-five feature films on the main screen over the course of ten days.

close enemyBut what Russian directors lacked in competition representation at the 2010 festival, they made up for in their desire to appeal to the widest possible audience. According to Irina Pavlova, the organizer of the Russian program, the films shown this year were selected for average viewers, not critics. At the opening of the Russian program, Pavlova proudly proclaimed that these were not “snobby art-house films like in the past,” but “genre cinema—films for the viewer.” While festivals have long been considered the venue precisely for art-house cinema, this newfound pride in privileging the masses over the critics was immediately apparent in the opening selection of 2010: the detective/action film Close Enemy (Blizkii vrag, 2009) by Aleksandr Atanesian.[1] Starring Dmitrii Diuzhev and Andrei Panin, Close Enemy—with the car chases, gated estates, and drug trafficking necessary to easily identify it as an action/thriller (boevik)—is predictable from start to finish. Polina, the adopted daughter of a prominent drug lord, falls in love with and marries Oleg, one of her father’s partners in crime. But Oleg is murdered when a jealous co-conspirator frames him to make it look as if he has betrayed the group during a drug deal gone wrong. Having learned much from her wily father, Polina takes justice into her own hands and hunts down everyone who has betrayed her late husband. Close Enemy’s predictable plot line and rigid genre conventions demonstrated in the first hours of the Russian program that one of the underlying themes of 2010 was in fact “cinema for the viewer”.

Yet, if we look for more specific lines of similarity among this year’s Russian films, we see that—while not all the selections fit neatly into one or another genre category—what most of them have in common is their (rather shocking) optimism. This “feel good” quality does not conform to a Hollywood “boy meets girl” formula, but is perhaps best described as a noticeable infusion of a “will to live” that was nowhere to be found in the Russian-language films of last year’s competition. If we think back to the winners of 2009, for instance: the young Petia from Petia on the Way to Heaven is mistaken for an escaped convict and shot dead; Tania is turned to stone for 128 days as punishment for her blasphemy in Miracle; Chekhov’s Dr. Ragin gradually loses hold on his sanity until he becomes a prisoner in his own mental institution; and in Melody for a Barrel Organ, young Nikita freezes to death while his sister, Alena, is left to grieve for her deceased brother. According to Christina Stojanova’s review of the 2009 competition films, the characters featured were ordinary people doomed to suffer at the hands of external happenstance. Moreover, she continues: “the sense of entrapment in these films was additionally enhanced by the prevalent arrangement of the incidents as a guest of sorts, usually leading nowhere and leaving the protagonists either dead or much worse off.”

zhitThis year only three of the thirteen films that appeared at Kinotavr made it from Sochi to Moscow, and one of those was the aptly titled Live (Zhit', 2010), the debut of young director Iurii Bykov (b. 1981).[2] While hunting with his dog out in the country, Nikolai is drawn into a violent manhunt. He becomes a target, and in order to survive, must team up with the hunted—a mysterious young epileptic, Andrei. The overweight, middle-aged Nikolai and the quick-thinking Andrei form an unlikely partnership until both are captured and Nikolai must choose between Andrei’s life and his own.

While the position in which Nikolai is placed at the end of the film is undoubtedly dismal, suggesting that he too has become “a victim of happenstance” through his accidental involvement in the manhunt (Stojanova), Bykov emphasizes that his focus in making Live was not on Andrei’s death but on Nikola’s rebirth. “A guy goes to shoot some ducks and quail and leaves with the kind of life experience that he couldn’t have ever acquired in his lifetime,” Bykov explains. “And the process of man’s passing from point A to point B is cinema’s primary concern” (Sveshnikova). The film’s redemptive motifs are reinforced not only by its title, but in the constant, almost excessive, repetition of the query “Do you want to live?,” as Andrei attempts to convince Nikolai that escape, not surrender, is their only chance of survival. In the closing scenes the same question is posed to Nikolai by his captor as he is given the choice of saving his own life by taking Andrei’s. In fact, we might identify Nikolai’s emphatically affirmative answer to the question “Do you want to live?” as a unifying tenet of many of the films at this year’s Russian program. The query not only occurs regularly, posed to various characters in differing situations, but the protagonists’ resounding and often unexpected “yeses” transform melancholic and downright disheartening narratives into life-affirming lessons, complete with conversional subtexts, optimistic protagonists, and even a few feel-good endings.

sparrowWe find one such saccharine ending in Sparrow, which tells the story of life in a particular Russian province where a herd of wild horses has become the subject of a local mythology. As Anton Dolin notes, in Sparrow the provinces are depicted in an unbelievable manner: “There isn’t a single curse word in the entire film, not a single glass of moonshine. Everything is clean, washed, beautiful” (Dolin). While many recent portrayals of the provinces could be categorized somewhere between realism and chernukha (e.g. Katia Shagalova’s Once Upon a Time in the Provinces / Odnazhdy v provintsii, 2008 and Vasilii Sigarev’s Wolfy / Volchok, 2009), the conclusion of Sparrow is as idealized as its representation of rural Russia. When the local government takes action to sell the horses to pay off debts, a young boy steals his father’s rifle to protect the herd. In an unlikely victory of good will over financial profit, town officials undergo a change of heart and dismiss the trucks, releasing the horses back into the wild.

bibinurBibinur, the only Russian film in the “Perspectives” program, is even more idealized. Filmed by Maksim Drozdov, who won the Golden Osella in Venice for his camerawork on Aleksei German Jr.’s Paper Soldier (Bumazhnyi soldat, 2008), Bibinur received half of its funding from the Ministry of Culture and the other half from the budget of the Republic of Tatarstan (Gonchareva and Zabaluev). With an opening that almost exactly replicates the closing scenes of Jurai Jakubisko’s I’m Sitting on a Branch and I’m Fine (Sedím na konári a je mi dobre, 1989), Drozdov’s films is perhaps best described as a contemporary provincial fairy tale. Bibinur, endowed with the magical powers of an enchanted apple tree and the ability to breast-feed without having ever been pregnant, has a premonition that she will die within several days. But first she must tie up loose ends in her troubled village, converting her disillusioned neighbors into believers in both miracles and Allah. Although Bibinur is alone, having been betrayed and/or abandoned by two fiancés and her adopted son, the film puts an optimistic twist on an otherwise tragic tale. Bibinur was received coolly by critics, perhaps because of its overly sentimental and predictably cliché ending: a young boy with an exceptional voice, having announced that only snow in summer will convince him of Allah’s existence, undergoes a conversion amidst a thick flurry of white ash spewing from a propane explosion that took the life of Bibinur. The boy goes on to use his voice as Bibinur had urged him to all along, putting his gift to work as a muezzin as he calls the surrounding villages to prayer.

orangeSimilar in mood is Andrei Proshkin’s Orange Juice (Apel'sinovyi sok, 2010), which tells the story of an eccentric and terminally ill Russian-American, Steven, who returns to Moscow to live out his life in seclusion with two young helpers: his single caretaker, Dasha, and his indolent personal physician posing as a homosexual, Egor. In a plot line that Sergei Sychev has likened to a Chekhovian drama, Steven offers Dasha $75,000 to marry him and she accepts, devising a plan that will allow her access to the rest of his fortune (Sychev). Predictably the pair falls in love, but when Steven suspects that his new wife may be only after his bank account he breaks it off, dying suddenly shortly after.

Like Live and Bibinur, Orange Juice too uses the death of the film’s main character as a platform for the rebirth of a supporting character. If Andrei’s execution in Live offers Nikolai a second chance at life and Bibinur’s tragic demise preserves Islamic traditions by inspiring a young non-believer to dedicate his life to calling the entire region to prayer, Orange Juice ends with the emotional and moral transformation of the cynical Dasha. While her relationship with Steven is initially only about money, thanks to his eccentric guidance she makes peace with her family and, through his death, comes to realize the value of the bond they had formed. 

solntseAnd if Orange Juice was not optimistic enough, viewers could turn to Garik Sukachev’s House of Sun (Dom Solntsa, 2010)—a lighthearted period melodrama about the hippie movement in Russia. Filmed over a period of two years in Moscow and the Crimea, House of Sun narrates the story of Sasha, a naive high-school graduate who falls in love with Sun, a mysterious free spirit who introduces her to hippie culture. Sasha follows Sun south for a summer holiday where he dies suddenly of a heart defect. The cinematography is bright and crisp, with overexposed scenes and an abundance of reflective material serving to capture the carefree, nature-oriented attitude of the era. This on-screen nostalgia is supplemented with references to Vladimir Vysotskii, Mashina vremeni, and Equal Rights and peace rallies. But again, transformation is the film’s guiding principle and Sun’s role as a mentor gives the film an almost bildungsroman-esque quality: after her experiences with her new friends, Sasha enters medical school the next fall with a radically altered view of the world.

windowThe closing film of the Russian program, Dmitrii Meskhiev’s Man at the Window (Chelovek u okna, 2010), took optimism and the “feel-good-ending” to an almost absurd level. Maria Zvonareva had been awarded the Prize for Best Actress at Kinotavr for her portrayal of the wife of the film’s protagonist, Shura—an aging theatre actor who has come to the discovery that he is (in his own words) “good-for-nothing”. As his wife begins an affair with his best friend, Shura attracts the attention of Sonia, a woman young enough to be his daughter. His life begins to dramatically change when he begins to work for Sonia’s “new Russian” boyfriend, Stas, using his acting skills to intimidate business competitors. Not only is the romance between Sonia and Shura unbelievable, but the feel-good results of their near-adultery is likely to be unpalatable to most critics. After Shura and Sonia part ways, Shura’s wife realizes that she is no longer interested in her lover and she returns to her husband, who has conveniently since become a very wealthy man through his involvement in Stas’ shady business dealings. While the question “Do you want to live?” is posed explicitly only at the very beginning of Man at the Window, as Shura races a passenger to the airport in a bout of reckless driving, it has been answered definitely by the film’s final scenes. After assorted betrayals and infidelities, all is quickly forgiven and the characters band together for an ending that reinforces the redemptive focus of this year’s films one last time: in a moment of idealized voyeurism, Sonia gives birth with Stas by her side as Shura watches from a hospital window, cheering her on as she brings a new life into the world.

If viewers of Russian films have come to expect inevitable endings over happy ones, the Russian program at the 32nd Moscow IFF appears to indicate a change in a quite different direction. While most films stopped short of the classic Hollywood ending, in which goodness triumphs and every character comes out on top, many of the films used the misfortune and/or death of a protagonist as the starting point for a conversion—be it religious or moral. When paired with identifiable units of genre cinema such as love triangles and car chases, this emphasis on character development—the transition from “point A to point B,” as Bykov described “cinema’s primary concern” (Sveshnikova)—made for a set of films that are undoubtedly directed at the average viewer. And while it is unlikely that any of the films of the 2010 Russian program will go on to break box office records, they signal an unprecedented “will to live” that, if disheartening to critics, bodes well for the mass market and cinematic profitability.

Alyssa DeBlasio
Dickinson College


1] Atanesian is perhaps best known for his film Bastards (Svolochi, 2005).

2] Bykov’s film The Boss (Nachal'nik, 2009) won the prize for Best Short Film at the 2009 Kinotavr festival.

Works Cited

Dolin, Anton. “Vorobei Iuriia Shillera k ptitsam ne imeet nikakogo otnosheniia.” (23 June 2010).

Gonchareva, Dar'ia and Iaroslav Zabaluev. “Nam, Tataram, pomirat'.” Siuzhet (19 June 2010).

Stojanova, Christina. “Characters and Circumstance: Notes on the Competition Program of the 31st Moscow IFF.” Kinokultura 26 (2009).

Sveshnikova, Mariia. “Iurii Bykov: Ia vsegda budu snimat' kino o nesovershennom cheloveke.” Interview. Tat'ianin den' (28 July 2010).

Sychev, Sergei. “Utomlennye sokom.” Interfax (9 March 2010).

Alyssa DeBlasio © 2010

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Updated: 18 Oct 10