Issue 68 (2020)

Valerii Todorovskii: Odessa (2019)

reviewed by Vincent Bohlinger © 2020

odessa Quarantine! Odessa is set in its namesake city during the summer of 1970 at the beginning of an outbreak of cholera. Although the film predates the COVID-19 pandemic, one cannot help but watch the film with today’s global health crisis in mind. How does everyday life continue despite the disruptions of a regional emergency? Are arising interpersonal dramas ever independent, or are they always the consequence of this larger pervasive force? How does the threat of illness willfully get pushed to the background until it forcefully rages itself into the foreground?  

odessaDramas situated within an historical era are well within director Valerii Todorovskii’s wheelhouse. His acclaimed film Hipsters (Stiliagi, 2008) was set against the backdrop of the 1950s, while his much-watched television series The Thaw (Ottepel’, 2013) was named for that era of the 1960s. With Odessa he moves into the 1970s and offers us a past that, like these other projects, is full of surface beauty and looks quite lovely—even in the time of cholera.  

odessa A boy arrives with his father from Moscow to visit his mother’s family: her parents, two sisters, and their families. The quarantine gets announced just before his mother can join them. The crowded house leads to a variety of spats and squabbles, as well as alternative sleeping arrangements, which in turn lead to the incredibly familiar yarn of a middle-aged man hooking up with a barely legal girl who must be mature enough, because she is both responsible and fun loving, and looks so refreshingly young and innocent. For the man, he proclaims, “with her I feel alive.” For the girl, well, unsurprisingly, no one asks.

odessaThe boy shares the same first name as Todorovskii, and much press about the film has suggested it to be autobiographical because the director spent his childhood summers in Odessa. (We probably should not think too much of the above-mentioned romance since the director’s family is far from anonymous.) In an interview, the film’s producer Leonid Iarmol’nik, who also plays the grandfather, insists that the film is about the director’s memories of that time and place while not being any kind of memory of him or his childhood (Mel'man 2019). Much of the film’s drama occurs out of eye and earshot of the boy, so we do not get a strong sense of the boy framing this story for us. Still, the film does occasionally take the boy’s perspective with interspersed vignettes suggesting halcyon days filled with wonder, adventure, pranks, and flatulence jokes.

odessa There is another contemporary issue that most viewers cannot help but think of when watching this film: Crimea. To my admittedly limited eye and ear, there seems to be little presented in Odessa as Ukrainian. Moreover, a heated family argument arises over a sister and her husband wishing to immigrate to Israel. “I am Russian,” the grandfather/patriarch bellows in response to a pointed accounting of his own Jewish identity, “at the very least, Soviet.” This collapsing—this willful self-erasing—of ethnicity in one specifically addressed context seems to speak volumes on another question that remains decidedly unspoken throughout the film. The film naturalizes the complete Russianness of this city as it naturalizes Russian as both lingua franca and monoculture of this era. As it was then, so it is now? (It is worth noting that no part of the film was shot in Odessa; Anon 2018)

odessaNostalgia mobilized as an ideological weapon is certainly unsurprising in any film set in the past. What I find surprising is how strongly the film’s Soviet-ness permeates beyond its vintage visuals. Late in the film we meet a woman who is fantastically coiffed, sartorially sophisticated, and sexually forward. As sex positivity did not exist in 1970, so too nearly fifty years later? This character seems to function primarily for thematic comparison. Now parallel to the film’s principal romance of an older man and a much younger girl, we are presented with the tantalization of an older woman and a much younger boy. Her proclivity, however, comes across as icky and helps normalize the man-girl pairing more than it underscores any similar cross-generational perversion. She comes across as self-indulgent, and of course her mod style gets paired with a bottle of Coca-Cola and a spread of English-language magazines featuring bikinis, bikinis, bikinis before her big reveal: all evidence of Western decadence and deviance!

odessa I cannot help but point out that the film’s end credits begin with a special thanks to Roman Abramovich, Mikhail Prokhorov, and Elena Baturina. Each name appears one by one across the black screen, a privileged designation that only one of the film’s stars receives—not to mention that the names of the billionaire triumvirate are featured in larger font. I cannot decide whether the topsy-turvy political histories of these celebrity oligarchs complicate or clarify the politics of this film.  

odessa I believe the film’s greatest achievement is its extraordinary use of color. The film’s palette is intriguingly limited primarily to soft warm browns and muddy light blues. These hues are surely motivated by the shots at the sea, where the sand and water inspire the set design and costuming for the rest of the film. Shot after shot after shot gives us variations of this same basic color scheme. My viewing experience quickly became a delightful anticipation of the chromatic reconfigurations of each scene. Such imaginative rigor must be commended. Further praise must be given to actress Irina Rozanova for her tour de force in a semi-understated, slow-boil performance as the grandmother. Confined primarily to the preparation and serving of food, she presents longsuffering as both fragility and stoicism—and her face is completely unrecognizable.

odessaThe film served as the opening film of the 2019 Kinotavr Festival in Sochi and opened to general audiences in early September of the same year. Despite generally negative reviews, it managed to secure the number two spot in the domestic box office for its opening weekend (far behind It. Chapter Two) and ultimately earned well over a million dollars through the end of that year. In December, it was featured in the Russian Film Week in New York.

Vincent Bohlinger
Rhode Island College

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Works Cited

Anon. 2018. “Valerii Todorovskii otpravilsia v Odessa.” Kino-Teatr.Ru, 26 April.

Mel’man, Aleksandr. 2019. “Kholera stala nazyvat’sia fil’mom Odessa: Todorovskii snial kartinu pro leto detstva." Moskovskii Komsomolets, 3 September.

Odessa, Russian Federation, 2019
Color, 130 min.
Director, Concept, Producer: Valerii Todorovskii
Scriptwriter: Maksim Belozor
Story: Dmitrii Ivanov
Director of Photography: Roman Vas’ianov
Set Design: Vladimir Gudilin
Costume Design: Aleksandr Osipov
Music: Anna Drubich
Editor: Aleksei Bobrov
Sound: Sergei Chuprov
Cast: Leonid Iarmol’nik, Evgenii Tsyganov, Irina Rozanova, Kseniia Rappoport, Evgeniia Brik, Sergei Sosnovskii, Veronika Ustimova, Sergei Murav’ev, Vladimir Koshevoi, Stepan Sereda, Diana Manukian, Nikita Tabunshchik, Stanislav Eventov
Producer: Leonid Iarmol’nik
Production: Marmot Film

Valerii Todorovskii: Odessa (2019)

reviewed by Vincent Bohlinger © 2020

Updated: 2020