Issue 30 (2010)

Nikolai Lebedev: Soundtrack of Passion (Fonogramma strasti, 2009)

reviewed by Elise Thorsen © 2010

fonogrammaNikolai Lebedev’s 2009 film Soundtrack of Passion reflects a continuing engagement with various popular film genres. If in 2006, he explored fantasy in the blockbuster Wolfhound, his latest film draws on the genres of surveillance thriller and romantic melodrama. The premise that drives the plot is relatively straightforward: Vita (Elena Nikolaeva), a young woman who works as an agent conducting audio surveillance in a private espionage agency, stumbles into a passionate affair with the handsome, silent Adam (the Italian Fabio Fulco), who ends up being the anonymous object of her professional scrutiny in addition to her uncontrollable lust-soon-love. They are soon the only individuals not in the know about this coincidence, and the key question becomes how to escape the spider’s web of surveillance and “liquidations” before they, or their trust in one another, are fatally wounded.

It is possible to enjoy this film, taking it only at face value. The actors are attractive and the character psychologies convincing, while the editing works well to create a sense of tension and excitement. The cinematography and sound editing often offer the viewer the pleasurable illusion of being able to do Vita’s job with comparable skill, whether during the shift in the opening shots of the film from audio-only to audio-visual footage of champagne being poured, or in the course of the moment-to-moment exaggeration of audible minutiae that usually fall under the radar of everyday attention.

The realism of the narrative and diegetic environment is not significantly compromised by the fillips in plot that demand the suspension of disbelief and the indulgence of circumstance in the plot (mainly because of the genre markers). The improbability of discovering “one true love,” let alone the specific circumstances under which Vita discovers Adam, directly after wishing for a man like him, becomes a non-issue against the background of genre romance, in which such exceptional meetings are simultaneously extraordinary (within the framework of the film) and commonplaces (reproduced in factory-like fashion in the rows of romances and romantic comedies available for commercial consumption). Likewise, the coincidence that the strange lover is also the unidentified subject of observation is not atypical of a surveillance thriller. One of the central moral conceits of the genre, after all, is the relationship an eavesdropper unwittingly develops with his subjects.

fonoThe plausible deniability that the romantic thriller genre provides against the accusation of authorial contrivance is not meant, however, to work too well—the viewer is encouraged to question the frequency of coincidence in the evolution of this story. Chance is frequently invoked in the film, but the quick rebuttal, denying that any such thing exists, reminds the viewer that there actually is a director manipulating these characters, and perhaps not only a film director. In a scene where Gennadii Petrovich (Sergei Garmash), the espionage agency’s director, interrogates Vita in an attempt to extract a picture of the larger conspiracy he is certain exists behind her liaison with Adam, he demands to know who arranged their meeting. Faced with the answer “Perhaps the Lord God?”, he launches into a lengthy tirade that illustrates the degree of control he has exerted over his employees throughout the film and the degree to which such power has gone to his head when he shouts, “For you, I am Lord God!” If the definition of “Lord God” is a vengeful, omniscient entity with the power to punish any of his subjects at will, it seems for a while that Gennadii Petrovich may be right, at least within the frame of the film. This illusion is broken by a new serendipitous turn, when the bounds of the film-world expand beyond those defined by the spy agency. However, the questions of chance and fate remain open, and inspire further interrogation of the film’s allusions to Godhood and divine will.

fonoIndeed, the film is saturated with religious imagery, specifically the iconography of Genesis. The central relationship is posited as love developing from pure passion untainted by civilization, always consummated in a space that psychologically (and audibly, as the sound of water always predominates) transcends its urban surroundings. In other words, it clearly alludes to the first man (Adam, if the connection had to be made more clear) and woman, in their prelapsarian existence in the Garden of Eden. Together, Vita and Adam reprise the fall from grace; the auditory details of a breakfast of eggs and apples precipitate the loss of their transcendent innocence as Vita finally understands who it is she has been spying on.

In addition to the structuring narrative of the Fall, other suggestive and atmospheric details beg to be placed in some order. The representation from the Sistine Chapel of the Flood in Noah 7-9 flickers across Gennadii Petrovich’s screensaver, a graphic illustration of the relationship he conceives between himself and his employees. Vita’s code-name, “Group of Seven” (semerka), evokes the mystical number of the Bible and particularly the Creation myth for which she, the Eve-figure, is the culmination. When the world abruptly shifts frames and the OMON invades and seizes control, the shot of a digital clock reading 15:08 suggests a biblical passage; Revelation 15:08, which refers to the invasion of the Temple by smoke and the seven plagues of the seven angels, completes the cycle of creation and destruction, through which the lovers may return to grace in a new world.

fonoThe final key to rendering coherent at least one of the philosophies underpinning Soundtrack of Passion is not the Bible as a stand-alone text, but the Bible as part of Renaissance culture, with its orientation toward seeking the divine ideal in human existence. Such a focus would, one might assume, restore agency to the human actors for whom sympathy is cultivated in the film, and disable the God-usurping powers of Gennadii Petrovich. Hence, the prominence of Italian as the lovers’ language and the presence of “speaking” Latin names—Vita, or “life,” the protagonist; Regina, the delightfully earthy “queen” who ends up pulling many more strings than could have been initially suspected (Nina Usatova); and the virgin huntress Diana, that is, the code-name of Vita’s workplace friend and competitor, Alia (Ol'ga Litvinova), who is by comparison to Vita a rather pallid reflection of incomplete, damaged femininity. Even the actors’ physiognomies reflect a certain Renaissance typage: Fulco’s athletic body and Nikolaeva’s full and graceful figure reprise the Italian rediscovery of the classical nude as a celebration of human glory and fecundity.

The Renaissance imagery of Soundtrack of Passion is far from salvational, however. The premise of spy thrillers is that surveillance is a crucial part of asserting power over a subject. As a result, the overwhelming visuality of the allusions to Renaissance culture clues the possibility that they may be co-opted and controlled. The flash of the Sistine Chapel’s Flood scene across the frame of Gennadii’s screensaver and Regina’s rather lascivious point-of-view shot focused on the penis of the Vitruvian Man instill doubts that these monuments in the study of human weaknesses and ideals possess any power to free humanity from such absolute power relationships. These shots prefigure the eventual conclusion of the film, that it is impossible to escape from subjectivity under arbitrary secular tyranny in this world—the best that can be hoped for is benefaction, not freedom.

This film goes well beyond simple amusement: while it integrates a well-enunciated philosophical statement on freedom with the pleasure of viewing, it also never descends into didacticism or obscurantism. However, low levels of advertising and distribution meant that it did not find either a mass or a niche audience in Russia, as reported this July in Rossiiskaia Gazeta (Kichin 2010). Soundtrack of Passion is a thoughtful, yet entertaining film—or perhaps vice versa, an entertaining, yet thoughtful film—but the film has yet to be truly evaluated by a Russian audience. It is therefore difficult to judge whether the message about humanity and its vehicle of generic entertainment would actually have been effective, had circumstances been different.

Elise Thorsen
University of Pittsburgh

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Works Cited

Kichin, Valerii. “Strasti po trilleru.” Rossiiskaia Gazeta 25 July 2010.


Soundtrack of Passion (Russia, 2009)
Color, 97 min.
Director: Nikolai Lebedev
Screenplay: Nikolai Lebedev, Leonid Porokhnia, Bakhyt Kilibaev
Cinematography: Irek Khartovich
Music: Dmitrii Rybnikov
Sound: Pavel Doreuli
Editing: Lidiia Milioti, Roman Shein,
Cast: Elena Nikolaeva, Fabio Fulco, Sergei Garmash, Nina Usatova, Anatolii Belyi, Nikolai Machul'skii, Ol'ga Litvinova, Svetlana Toma, Aleksandr Pakhomov, Aleksei Kizenkov
Producer: Ruben Dishdishian, Nikolai Lebedev, Evgenii Mironov, Sergei Danielian, Aram Movsesian
Production: Central Partnership, ML-Studio

Nikolai Lebedev: Soundtrack of Passion (Fonogramma strasti, 2009)

reviewed by Elise Thorsen © 2010

Updated: 01 Oct 10