Saturday, 9 April 2011

Karen Shakhnazarov: Town Zero - Город Зеро (1988)

Directed by Karen Shakhnazarov
Starring Leonid Filatov, Oleg Basilashvili, Vladimir Menshov.

Sitting in a nearly empty hotel dining room, a baffled engineer named Aleksei watches the waiter wheel a dessert cart to his table. "I didn't order dessert," Aleksei says, but this one was custom-made: a cake that stares back at him in the precise size, shape and color of his own head, right down to the lucid, light-blue eyes. Refusing a slice of his own nose, he ignores the waiter's warning that "the chef will kill himself." Bad choice. Even as he heads for the door, Aleksei hears a shot and turns to see the insulted pastry maker keel over right in front of the happily playing band.

This is just the start of the absurd intrigue in "City Zero," a deliciously cheerful satire about the legacy of Stalin, personal identity and the political importance of rock-and-roll. ...

Though its plot is Kafkaesque, its setting seems closer to Lewis Carroll's Wonderland than to Moscow. Karen Shakhnazarov, the director and co-writer, establishes a tone that is eerie without being sinister, and goes on to invent a story that is comic and fluent yet full of dangerous turns.

Arriving in a small town for a simple business meeting, Aleksei gets off the train from Moscow in beautiful, misty predawn light and total isolation. When he shows up for his meeting, he finds a secretary inexplicably naked at her typewriter, behavior no one else finds strange. He and the film get off to a shaky start here, but the satire is never again so sophomoric, the tone never again so jokey and wrong.

Instead, Aleksei is confronted with the twin cake and before long by investigators who wonder about his connection to Nikolayev, the dead chef he had never seen before. Why, for instance, did the chef have a photograph of Aleksei, which was inscribed "To my dear father," and signed "Makhmud"? ...

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