Issue 70 (2020)

Dmitrii Meskhiev: Two Tickets Home (Dva bileta domoi, 2018)

reviewed by Benjamin Rifkin © 2020

2 bileta domoiDmitrii Meskhiev is best known for the films Our Own (Svoi, 2004) and Battalion (2015), as well as for numerous television mini-series featuring the well-known Russian actor Sergei Garmash, perhaps best known for his roles in Valerii Todorovskii’ Hipsters (Stiliagi, 2008) and Nikita Mikhalkov’s 12 (2007), as well as the recent mini-series Trotsky (2017, dir. Aleksandr Kott and Konstantin Statskii). Two Tickets Home tells the story of Liuba Vasnetsova (played by Maria Skuratova, who also appeared in Trotsky), an orphan about to graduate from high school, in love with her boyfriend Artem, and planning to realize her dream of becoming a stewardess for Aeroflot. During the graduation ceremony, Liuba learns that her father, who, she had been told, had perished in a fire after her mother had died, was actually alive. Upon further investigation, Liuba learns that he was convicted of killing her mother and serving a 15-year prison term, roughly the same time she has spent in the orphanage. Liuba soon also learns that her boyfriend, Artem, has been cheating on her and ultimately breaks up with her. Liuba goes on a quest to find her father and kill him to avenge her mother’s murder, getting a gun for this purpose from a boy nicknamed “Shilo,” who has a crush on her. She engineers the meeting with her father, Nikolai Vasnetsov (played by Garmash), without revealing to him what she believes their relationship to be, in order to get to know him as the two embark on a journey, each with their own goal. The narrative of the film is taken up with Liuba’s evolving assessment of her father’s character, as the two unlikely companions make their way toward their destination. In the course of the journey, the circumstances of the death of Liuba’s mother are revealed to be not as clear as Liuba had been led to believe. The film is based on an idea by Garmash and he is also one of the film’s screenwriters and producers. Given Garmash’s significant role in the creation of the film, the interview with him at KinoPoisk may be of interest to many viewers.

Two Tickets Home joins the group of post-Soviet films using the metaphor of family to analyze Russia’s relationship to its own past and its search for identity in the present and future. These films, include Pavel Lungin’s Luna Park (1992) and The Wedding (Svad’ba 2000), Pavel Chukhrai’s The Thief (Vor 1997), Andrei Zviagintsev’s The Return (Vozvrashchenie 2003), Andrei Kravchuk’s The Italian (Italianets,2005), and to some extent Aleksei Balabanov’s Brother (Brat,1997) and Brother 2 (Brat 2, 2000), as well as Sergei Bodrov Jr’s Sisters (Sestry, 2001), among others. In each of these films, characters confront the return of a parent, sibling, or child, or they seek that missing parent, sibling, or child in a quest. Both the confrontation (e.g. in Luna Park, Wedding, or Return) and the resolution of the quest (e.g. in Italian, Brother, Brother 2, or Sisters) are far more than just a family narrative, but rather an analysis of Russian identity after the collapse of the Soviet Union, a discussion of Russia’s place in the world after the elimination of Communism (successor to Orthodoxy) as Russia’s wellspring of national identity. It is no coincidence, for example, that the hero’s mother in Kravchuk’s The Italian, the woman for whom the “orphaned” boy is searching before he is to be adopted off to Italy (the central conflict of the film’s narrative), lives on 25 October Street; or that Sania in The Thief seeks his stepfather, Tolian—a symbol of Stalin—everywhere, even as an adult in post-Soviet Russia.

So, too, we find the search for Russian identity in Liuba’s quest to find her father. Liuba’s birth can be determined to have happened in the previous millennium by virtue of the fact that she is graduating from high school in 2017. We learn that her mother was a prostitute and her father was imprisoned—when Liuba was three years old—for having murdered her mother, but he cannot remember the events unfolding around her mother’s death except that in the conflict preceding her death, Liuba’s mother denied that Vasnetsov was, in fact, Liuba’s father. All we know about Liuba’s grandmother is that she begged the orphanage to hide from Liuba the truth of her family background. Time and again we witness Vasnetsov (whose name, of course, connects us to Viktor Vasnetsov, the artist associated with the revival of motifs of folklore and Russian national romanticism in painting, best known for his “Knight at the Crossroads” and “Three Knights”) behaving honorably when the easier choice would be to not do so, giving his own money to the mother of a fellow prisoner, declining her offer of hospitality when he clearly had nowhere to go, and defending Liuba from an attack, among other chivalrous acts. Of course, the very name of the film, Two Tickets Home, clearly marks the film as a metaphoric journey to Russia’s spiritual or philosophical home in the chaos of the socio-political and economic chaos of the post-Soviet era, a home that is not in any of the larger cities. Although the two main characters are intending to go to St Petersburg, they wind up instead returning to their fictional hometown of Kotorsk.

2 bileta domoi As Liuba comes to know her father, the two have conversations, some of which unfold in front of a background that can only be described as archetypically Russian: a gently sloping meadow with bales of hay bordered by small groves of trees. Liuba and her father are both products of Russian culture, they are Russian to their core: Liuba dreams of being a stewardess for Aeroflot, not for one of the many foreign airlines flying in and out of Russia. The clothes she wears, the music she listens to and sings, the ways in which she interacts with her classmates and teachers reflect her Russianness: she does not rebel against the uniform of her school, and when she is late to class because of an overnight date with her older boyfriend, she does not make a scene but merely apologizes. She clearly has a very close relationship with at least two of the teachers and has no negative attitudes toward any of the teachers or other employees in the orphanage. Vasnetsov demonstrates prototypical Russian bravery on numerous occasions in the film, establishing his character as one that the viewer could go to war with. He has a close relationship with at least one of his prison friends—a relationship he honors with a visit to the man’s mother as a first task after his release, a debt of honor typical of the projection of Russian cultural values going back in history to the period of Imperial Russia.

The absence of major evil characters, or characters with nefarious intent, is quite unusual for films exploring Russian identity through the family metaphor as described above. Whereas the returned father in Return is a violent monster who cannot reintegrate into his family or the larger society it represents, and the mother-figure in Luna Park is another monster who grooms young men to be brutal neofascist thugs, for example,the teachers in the orphanage are kind and loving, the children are generally kind to one another (inasmuch as can be expected for teenagers), and even a wealthy man is found to generously—with no strings attached—provide for Liuba’s future given an unexpected twist of the law due to the fact that her father is, in fact, alive. In one of the film’s first scenes, Liuba and her boyfriend Artem are driving from his place back to her orphanage when they stop in a wooded area for her to relieve herself. When she doesn’t respond to his call, Artem becomes worried and walks into the woods, visibly fearful of what could have happened to his girlfriend, but Liuba surprises him and they fall to the ground together, laughing. Later in the film, a kind stranger gives Liuba a lift and she (and the viewers) fully expect a dark and violent turn, but he reassures her that he has a daughter roughly her age and would never harm her. When her things disappear on the train, they have not been stolen, but rather picked up by the conductors for safe-keeping and they calmly return the bags to her, without even mentioning the possibility of a bribe—and when Liuba checks her belongings, nothing is missing. The prison guards, to whom Liuba appeals for a visit with her father (without revealing her relationship to him), are positively kind when they explain that, while they cannot grant a visit to an individual with an unspecified relationship with the prisoner, the given prisoner is about to be released. The two genuinely evil characters are, oddly enough, minor figures who appear out of nowhere, providing Vasnetsov (as the film’s hero) with an opportunity to demonstrate his resemblance to Viktor Vasnetsov’s knights (bogatyri), and therefore playing an important role in the film’s exposition.

Indeed, considering the narrative as a whole, one has to question the role of the episode with the kind stranger who gives Liuba a lift: this scene would seem, at first glance, to be entirely extraneous to the film’s larger plot line. Its inclusion in the film serves only one aesthetic purpose: to demonstrate the ubiquitousness of kind people in Russia, to illustrate the inherent goodness of the Russian people in the larger context of films that teach viewers to fear evil in every stranger they see. There are scenes of near disaster: Liuba is assaulted twice, each time possibly leading toward rape, and Liuba nearly kills her father three times (about which he is unaware twice). The third time, which involves an actual act of violence, is the very moment when Liuba realizes that she is ready to love her father. The film is, nevertheless, full of tiny moments featuring fleeting glimpses of Russian happiness, such as a child’s laughter as her mother bounces her in her lap or a group of people in a courtyard clinking glasses in a toast. Viewers will certainly find no happier orphanage in a Russian film (compare, for example, with Lungin’s Wedding or Kravchuk’s The Italian).

Indeed, in his review of the film, Sergei Iur’ev (2018) paraphrases Meskhiev’s explanation, in an interview with the director, of one of his goals for making this film:

The director also affirms that he wanted to make a kind film about good people. He says that he is tired of cruelty on the screen and that he’s confident that in our non-ideal life there are far more good, honorable, and beneficent people than films and television shows show us.

Cinematographically, the film also constitutes an interesting journey. The opening scene focuses on Liuba’s clothes and shoes—the emptiness she will fill when she begins her day, the last day of her childhood, because the following day is her graduation, the day when she leaves the orphanage and begins adult life. She is in bed with Artem, the boyfriend who is revealed to be cheating on her and who leaves her—another narrative element that has its parallels with elements of Soviet history (the Soviet leadership’s abandonment of the genuine needs of the Soviet people despite the official proclamations of the CPSU). We learn during the course of the film that Liuba is the daughter of a prostitute and, most likely, a man convicted of killing her. She is also the granddaughter of a woman who wanted to conceal her past. All of these family details can be constructed as parallels with elements of Soviet history. At one point in her literal journey, on a train cruising through the Russian countryside, a Russian Orthodox priest appears in a scene, for just a moment, standing in her way, inviting her to pass him and excusing himself. The priest is utterly superfluous to the entire narrative, but his appearance is a symbolic moment, reminding us of the spiritual journey of Russia.

2 bileta domoiThe director plays with two visual motifs throughout the film: one of prison bars and fences, teasing viewers about two different visions of Russia; and another of hands and arms hanging over the edge of a bed, as if reaching for another hand, seeking kindness and demonstrating vulnerability: among the hands dangling in this way are Liuba’s (at the beginning of the film) and Vasnetsov’s (on the eve of their return to Kotorsk). The key moment in the film’s narrative is Liuba’s act of violence against her father, which ultimately brings the two into a loving family relationship, a relationship that could be the dream of every orphan and the aspiration of many Russians for their larger culture: this dream is illustrated in the last word Liuba utters in the film (“Papa”) and in the text of the closing song, “Liubi menia,” (“Love Me”) as the camera pans over the cityscape at the provincial train station of their home town.

Two Tickets Home is a film with an autological title: in purchasing a ticket (or two) to see the film, Russian viewers are taking a trip home, to the Russia they would like to see in their hearts, not the one they see so often in the media.

Benjamin Rifkin
Hofstra University

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Works Cited

Iur’ev,Sergei. 2018. “'Dva bileta domoi'. Platit' li za bilety na novyi fil'm Dmitriia Meskhieva?” Argumenty i fakty, 7 June.

Two Tickets Home, Russia, 2018
Color, 100 minutes, Dolby Stereo
Director: Dmitrii Meskhiev
Screenplay: Sergei Garmash, Dmitrii Meskhiev, Mariia Oshmianskaia
Cinematography: Vladimir Bashta
Editor: Aleksei Maklakov
Production Design Dmitrii Malich
Sound: Antonia Balashova, Lev Ezhov, Daniil Fedorov
Cast: Maria Skuratova, Sergei Garmash, Kamil’ Khardin, Evgenii Tkachuk, Natal’ia Surkova, Irina Rakhmanova, Irina Rozanova
Producers Valerii Itkin, Dmitrii Meskhiev, Anton Zlatopol’skii, Sergei Garmash
Production Kinodelo, with support from the Ministry of Culture of the RF and TV Channel Rossiya

Dmitrii Meskhiev: Two Tickets Home (Dva bileta domoi, 2018)

reviewed by Benjamin Rifkin © 2020

Updated: 2020