Thursday, 10 March 2011

Yuri Shiller: Sparrow - Воробей (2010)

Director: Yuri Shiller
Producer: Aleksandr Gundorov
Cast: Denis Babushkin, Sergey Reusenko, Sergey Ugryumov, Kristina Babushkina

A sincere, gentle film about a modern Russian village and the tensions between traditions and contemporary life.

The grand prize winner of the II Annual Open Russian Competition of Feature Films “Vera, Nadezhda, Ljubov”(2008)

The grand prize winner of the XXII All-Russian Shukshin Festival (2010)

Reviewed by José Alaniz © 2011 in KinoKultura

One might be forgiven for thinking the Russian entry in the 32nd Moscow International Film Festival an odd choice for the honor. By most accounts, it was a “little film,” what in the US used to be called a “sleeper”: made on a small budget, set in a sleepy rural village, featuring no major stars, about a “local” subject unlikely to stir the interest of most mainstream, sensation-seeking, “event-picture” audiences. It also has a naïve, even retrograde quality akin to Village Prose literature, repellent to urban art house film crowds. Finally, its director—little-known despite a thirty-year career making documentaries [1] —has a greater interest in dignified portrayals of the “eternal Russian” hinterlands than in sharp dialogue, innovative dramatic structure, psychologically complex characterizations or “ripped from the headlines” topicality. Indeed, as he told an interviewer, he “could have shot this film five or ten years ago” (Sazonov).

For the most part Sparrow does not rise above such perceived “sins” of modern-day filmmaking, and it certainly stood little chance of winning any major awards at MIFF. One journalist summed up the situation: “Unfortunately, films of this kind are not very attractive to movie distributors, so they rarely make it to the big screen and most often get shown on television” (Gasumova). Yet director Iurii Shiller’s image of the contemporary Russian countryside – out of step with most citygoers’ preconceptions—nonetheless serves a useful function: as a barometer of what has and has not changed there in the decades since communism.

Filmed in and around the villages of Sergino and Babushi in the Perm region, Sparrow tells the simple story of ordinary country people beset by economic forces they cannot control, which threaten to alter forever their way of life. In fact, one could read the film as a sort of reverse Earth (Zemlia, Alexander Dovzhenko, USSR, 1930): rather than welcome “progress,” the proletariat grumbles and resists (meekly) as it destroys age-old traditions. And while the elderly in Dovzhenko’s work are the most resistant to the machine and the young the most eager to embrace it, in Shiller’s melodrama it is the greenest among them, a nine-year old boy, who stands (literally) in the way of neoliberal change. The site of contention in both works: the natural world. ...

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