Sunday, 19 August 2012

Karen Shakhnazarov: The Vanished Empire - Исчезнувшая империя (2008)

Director: Karen Shakhnazarov
Screenplay: Evgenii Nikishov, Sergei Rokotov
Cinematography: Shandor Berkeshi
Art Direction: Liudmila Kusakova
Sound: Gul'sara Mukataeva
Cast: Aleksandr Liapin, Lidiia Miliuzina, Egor Baranovskii, Ivan Kupreenko, Armen Dzhigarkhanian

Awards : Best directing Golden Eagle awards, Russia, 2009

"Set during the first half of the 1970s, The Vanished Empire depicts a love triangle between two young men and a girl who study at the same Moscow university. As they argue, make up, and face their first disappointments and victories, the country they love undergoes sweeping and irreversible changes. The latest film by celebrated Russian filmmaker Karen Shakhnazarov (Zero City, Jazzman) is a cinematic love letter to a unique moment in the lives of the Soviet youth." KinoInternational

The Vanished Empire (2008)

Appropriately, Karen Shakhnazarov’s The Vanished Empire was released in Russia on Valentine’s Day. The film’s plot centers on a teenage romance between Sergei (Aleksandr Liapin) and Liuda (Lidiia Miliuzina) that has all the trappings of young love: awkward attempts to impress, thrilling kisses, and heartbreak. Despite this narrative focus, Shakhnazarov isn’t sending his valentine message to young couples. Rather, his cinematic love letter is addressed not to a home or a street—to invoke the Samotsvetoy song referred to twice in the film—but to the Soviet Union.

Set in Moscow in 1973-74, the film’s primary characters are college kids in their late teens, who lead absolutely typical lives: they live at home with their parents, attend classes, date, listen to rock and roll—albeit bought on the black market for exorbitant prices—and experiment with drugs and alcohol. Were it not for the film’s dense mise-en-scène filled with objects meant constantly to remind the viewer of Stagnation era sights and sounds, the film’s story could easily be transposed to any other teen flick produced in Hollywood, Europe, or elsewhere. However, precisely because the bulk of the film’s meaning is embedded in the objects that fill the screen and in the accompanying soundtrack, rather than in the plot, Shakhnazarov succeeds in conjuring up for his viewer a nostalgic visual and aural rendering of Stagnation-era youth culture.

Although public spaces and state-controlled media outlets continue to transmit official Soviet rhetoric, the intense focus on the personal, in effect, mutes these messages. For example, propaganda posters heralding the unity of the people and the party decorate city streets, but are passed by unnoticed by the young couple. Newsreels about the Chilean coup d’état of 1973 play to a packed audience assembled to see Leonid Gaidai’s classic comedy Ivan Vasilievich Changes Professions. While it would seem that the news agency has secured itself a captive audience, Sergei and Liuda are preoccupied. He thinks about how to make an advance; she, about how to resist it. In a third example, Sergei’s despondent grandfather watches Brezhnev deliver a televised report on the strengthening of Soviet foreign policy against imperialist nations. This short episode is flanked by a previous scene of students dancing to Deep Purple’s “Smoke on the Water” and a subsequent scene of Sergei and Liuda kissing while Shocking Blue’s “Venus” spins on the record player. The foreign rock music—both the sound of it and its physical existence in the form of black market records—serves to undermine Brezhnev’s political speech: the so-called imperialist nations’ culture has already irrevocably infiltrated into the USSR. Moreover, the grandfather’s forlorn, almost comatose stare at the television, may be read as suggesting either depressive longing for the days of stronger leaders or, more probably, absolute indifference.

The film’s director, who has been at the helm of Mosfil'm Studios since 1998, wants to suggest that the Soviet Union crumbled not because of political policies, but because of the monumental influence of Western popular culture. In an interview published in Russia’s Izvestiia newspaper, Shakhnazarov said, “I am convinced the empire perished at the level of people’s personal lives, and not at all in the congresses and meetings.” He goes on to clarify that “it wasn’t the entry of soldiers into Afghanistan in December 1979 that played a key role in the disintegration of the Soviet Empire, but the Beatles and the Rolling Stones.”

In other words, values changed.

The Lost Empire (2008)

The attention is focused on a classical love triangle two boys and a girl. This is a memoir of my youth. Today I wonder at the fact that back then we all fell in love, got married, and divorced, and it did not occur to us, that the country in which we were living was already condemned and would soon vanish from the world map, that our life was going on against the background of global historic events. (Shakhnazarov cited in “Shakhnazarov Creates His First Film about Love”).

Set in Moscow in the fall/winter of 1973-74, Karen Shakhnazarov's film The Vanished Empire tells the story of three friends, or perhaps of first love, or better still, a story of growing up. Sergei Narbekov (Aleksandr Liapin) is the grandson of a famous archeologist (Armen Dzhigarkhanian), who had discovered the “vanished empire” of Khoresm and the City of the Winds. A first-year student at the pedagogical institute, Sergei makes money (mani) by selling off his grandfather's books to an antique book dealer, so that he can buy Wrangler jeans and Rolling Stones albums (plast rollingov) on the black market, and hang out in restaurants with his two friends, Kostia Denisov (Ivan Kupreenko) and Stepan Molodtsov (Egor Baranovskii). The three young men represent the spectrum of possibility of the “last Soviet generation”: Kostia, who has traveled abroad and comes from a family of diplomats wants to emigrate, to get out of Soviet Russia with its censorship, lack of freedom, and lines for beer, which he refers to as "Soviet servis." Sergei, a member of the intelligentsia, whose mother, father, and grandfather are all archeologists and specialist in the Near East, dreams of the “Imaginary West,” while concluding that in Russia, too, there may be some nice things, like girls. Stepan (whose last name points us to folkloric Russian nationalism) cannot understand either their desire or their dissatisfaction: perfectly pleased with how his life is turning out, with his round face and piggish eyes, he might easily become a Komsomol leader or a future agent of the KGB, but mostly spends his time courting Sergei's girls.

Reviewed by Lilya Kaganovsky © 2008 in KinoKultura

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