Wednesday, 30 November 2011

Academy and Award for Barber of Siberia director?

Spielberg doesn’t have one; Coppola doesn’t have one; Von Trier, Tarantino and Kitano will never have one. But the man behind Burnt by the Sun, Oscar-winning Russian director Nikita Mikhalkov is set to open a movie academy bearing his name. The institution will accept actors, film directors and directors of photography on a commercial basis. However, Mikhalkov promises grants will be available for the brightest students. When it comes to cost, the Russian director and actor has no shame. Once notorious for using a special blue siren to speed unchecked through Moscow’s busy streets, Mikhalkov secured a breathtaking budget of $55 million for his latest saga Burnt by the Sun-2. The movie broke all records to become the most expensive production in Russian film history. Notoriously billed as “a great film about a great war,” the sequel however turned out to be a box office flop, receiving scathing reviews in Russian and foreign media. Nevertheless, despite a wave of mass criticism, the Russian Oscar committee decided to nominate the controversial film from the head of Russia's Cinematographers' Union for the upcoming 84th Academy Awards. RT

Sergei M. Eisenstein: Battleship Potemkin (1925) - Full movie with English subtitles

Director: Sergei M. Eisenstein
Writer: Nina Agadzhanova (script),
Stars: Aleksandr Antonov, Vladimir Barsky,Grigori Aleksandrov

Veteran Director Back With Rebellion Film

Veteran director Andrei Smirnov has returned to the screen after nigh on three decades with a look at a dark period in Russia’s history, a peasant rebellion that was brutally crushed by the Bolsheviks after the Revolution. “Zhila-Byla Odna Baba,” or “Once Upon a Time There Lived a Woman,” follows a simple peasant woman in the Tambov region in 1920, whose life is turned upside down by the Revolution and the subsequent uprising. Smirnov, 70, said he had long wanted to make a film about the human effects of the Revolution. “It was natural for me to look at the topic of the village, the death of the Russian village, the revolutionary era and the Civil War,” Smirnov said at a recent news conference about the release of his much-anticipated film. The revolt in the film is based on a real insurrection in 1920-21 that was sparked by the forced confiscation of grain by Bolshevik forces. It was one of the most well-known rebellions against the Soviets and was cruelly crushed. Thousands died in the conflict, and chemical weapons were used at one point by the Bolsheviks, the first time a state ever used such weapons against its own people. Smirnov focuses his plot on the story of Varvara, played by the young actress Darya Yеkamasova, who survives rape and the death of loved ones. “The story is shown through the eyes of a simple woman who doesn’t understand who is Red and who is Green, but who like every woman gives undying support to her family and children,” Smirnov said. Critics have seen Varvara as a symbol for Russia itself. “I wanted the viewer not only to cry or to laugh, but to think about the fate of Russia,” Smirnov said. Rock singer and public activist Yury Shevchuk also stars as member of the peasant army. Smirnov is most famous for his 1971 film “Belorussky Vokzal,” or “Belorussky Station,” a touching drama about several World War II veterans meeting for a reunion after many years of not seeing one another. He directed only two more films after that hit, turning to acting and screenwriting for the last three decades. He most recently played one of the leading roles in Andrei Zvyagintsev’s art-house hit “Elena.” Smirnov said in an interview with Afisha magazine that he gave up directing because of problems with censorship. The film has had mixed reviews, with some comparing the director’s offering to Nikita Mikhalkov’s much-criticized sequels to the Oscar-winning “Burnt by the Sun.” Kommersant film critic Mikhail Trofimenkov said the film showed that Smirnov had lost none of his directing skill, but called the film artificial propaganda against communism. Like Mikhalkov’s films, “Zhila-Byla Odna Baba” received lavish state backing and support by state-friendly businessmen. Billionaire Viktor Vekselberg and the Kremlin’s chief ideologist Vladislav Surkov both backed the film, Smirnov said, and bizarrely, the names of Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov, Rusnano head Anatoly Chubais and Russian Railways chief Vladimir Yakima are all thanked in the film’s credits. So far the film, which cost more than $6 million to make, looks unlikely to turn a profit with less than $500,000 worth of tickets sold since it debuted earlier this month. The Moscow Times

Tuesday, 29 November 2011

Time Unfrozen - The Films of Aleksei German

This is my declaration of love for the people I grew up with as a child’, says a voice at the beginning of Aleksei German’s Moi drug Ivan Lapshin (My Friend Ivan Lapshin). There is a pause as the narrator struggles for the right words to express his feelings for the Soviet Union of the thirties; when they come—ob”iasnenie v liubvi—it is with a strained emphasis on ‘love’. The film, released in 1984, is set in 1935 in the fictional provincial town of Unchansk, where a young boy and his father share a communal flat with criminal police investigator Ivan Lapshin and half a dozen others. It weaves together elements from the director’s father Iurii German’s detective stories and novellas of the same period: a troupe of actors arrive to play at the town’s theatre; Lapshin tracks down a gang of criminals trading in human meat; a friend of Lapshin’s, Khanin, becomes unhinged after his wife dies of typhus; the spirited actress Adashova falls in love with Khanin, and Lapshin with Adashova. The authorities are largely absent: it is a film about people ‘building socialism’ on a bleak frozen plain, their town’s one street a long straggle of low wooden buildings beneath a huge white sky, leading from the elegant stucco square by the river’s quayside out into wilderness. There is a single tram, a military band, a plywood ‘victory arch’ of which they are all proud—‘My father’, the narrator recounts, ‘would never take a short cut across the town’: he always went the long way round, under the victory arch.

My Friend Ivan Lapshin

The film holds hope and suffering in the balance. Adashova proudly boasts about what the 1942 production quotas for champagne will be; Lapshin declares, ‘We shall clean up the earth and plant a garden, and we ourselves will live to walk in it’—just as the hacked-up corpses hidden by the meat-traders are loaded onto a truck. The film is full of such alarming details and ill omens: dubious meat, which retains the headline offprint of the newspaper it was wrapped in (‘WE REJOICE’) even after it’s been cooked; febrile explosions of rage over spilled paraffin; flocks of crows cawing across the sky. There is a mismatch between the optimism of the characters and what we know of subsequent events. ‘I’m going on a course’, Lapshin says towards the end of the film, and his words are left hanging in the air. These are people whose faith in the future remains intact, but whose betrayal is imminent. German has said that his main aim was to convey a sense of the period, to depict as faithfully as possible the material conditions and human preoccupations of SovietRussia on the eve of the Great Purge. It is for this world, for these people that the narrator struggles to declare his love—unconditional, knowing how flawed that world was, and how tainted the future would be. German compared the film to the work of Chekhov, and one can see in it a similar tenderness for the suffering and absurdity of its characters. Loosely episodic, the film is remarkable in its resistance to linear narrative: dialogue is often drowned out by senseless chatter or the clanging of buckets; our view of important characters is frequently blocked by figures crossing the screen. In its cinematography, Ivan Lapshin consistently refuses to accept established priorities: as though every element of each shot must be allowed its meaning. The camera often enters the room behind characters’ backs, like a guest, or at elbow-level, like a curious child. There is no sense that the scenes are choreographed or pre-arranged, but rather a feeling that the camera, wide-eyed, is capturing what it can of a bewildering world. All German’s films focus on moments in which history and myth have become entangled, if not dangerously indistinguishable. He has described his films as ‘antipotochnye’, ‘against the current’: disrupting certainties and undermining convenient truths. [1] The Stalin era, his principal subject, is the period of his own childhood and youth. Born in 1938 in Leningrad—the same generation as Tarkovsky and Mikhalkov—he grew up in a milieu frequented by leading cultural figures of the time: Kozintsev dropped by regularly, the playwright and fabulist Evgenii Shvartz was his ‘uncle Zhenia’, and even Akhmatova was seen on occasion at the Germans’ flat on the Moika. German graduated from the Leningrad Institute of Theatre, Music and Cinematography in 1960 as a theatre director; it was not until the mid-sixties that he made the shift to scripting films, during the extraordinary rebirth of Soviet and East European cinematography—influenced in part by Italian neo-realism but also by the French New Wave—that came with the Khrushchev thaw. In career terms, German made the move just too late. By the time he had scripted Trudno byt’ bogom(It’s Hard Being God, 1968), based on the Strugatskii brothers’ science fiction novel, and Ivan Lapshin (1969), Brezhnevite conformism had set in; neither film could be made. German’s first feature, Proverka na dorogakh(Trial on the Road), was finally shot in 1971; in retrospect it seems almost incredible that it was filmed at all. Soviet, indeed, Russian identity since World War Two had been founded on that bitterly won victory: the march to Berlin did more than any cult of personality to legitimate Stalin’s rule. German’s film undermines the fable of unwavering heroism and loyalty that sustained the self-perception of whole generations of Soviet citizens. A former Red Army lieutenant defects to the Nazis on ideological grounds, then decides to switch sides again to defend his homeland. The partisan brig­ade who capture him are suspicious and test his loyalty in a series of operations behind enemy lines. The motivations for the main character’s actions are barely discussed: questions of treason, of ideological as opposed to patriotic commitment are left largely unaddressed, and there is an uncomfortable sense of futility lurking behind any seeming acts of heroism. Proverka na dorogakh was shelved until 1986 because, according to internal memos of the state film agency Goskino, it ‘distorts the image of a heroic time’—‘the people it depicts could only have lost the Great Patriotic War’; the subtext being that German’s film ‘makes us someone other than who we want to be’. [2] The production of his second film Dvadsat’ dnei bez voiny (Twenty Days without War) was less problematic. Made in 1976, it was released after only six months’ delay although again, it looks aslant at a crucial Soviet story: the siege of Stalingrad. German has described it as ‘an anti-romantic melodrama’ with ‘anti-beautiful’ heroes. The middle-aged Lopatin has twenty days’ leave from the battle and spends it in Tashkent. He visits his ex-wife, signs divorce papers, meets up with friends and becomes involved with another woman; then his leave is curtailed and he is sent back to fight. We see nothing of Stalingrad itself. As is frequently the case in German’s work, plot is minimal, the emphasis instead being on the portrayal of a mood. Perhaps more importantly, neither characters nor events are typically heroic. Lopatin is part of an army that has begun to turn the tide, yet throughout the film he looks dog-tired, and smiles only briefly flit across his face. Filming on Moi drug Ivan Lapshin finally began in 1979 and finished in 1982. Although the first screening was greeted with a standing ovation, the film was immediately attacked from within German’s own studio, Lenfil’m—an article in the studio’s newspaper called it a ‘gadkaia kartina’, a ‘disgusting film’. An official of Goskino informed him that everyone knew 37 and 38 weren’t good years, but he shouldn’t destroy all people’s illusions—‘leave 1935 alone’. German was then told to re-shoot half of the film, and when he asked which half, the head of Goskino replied: ‘Either. Leave half of your crap and do half as we want you to’. [3] Fortunately, due to lack of finance and the director’s protestations, the re-shoot never took place. After prolonged debates within Goskino, the film was released in 1984, to critical acclaim and even a certain commercial success. Gorbachev’s accession signalled a turning point in German’s career. The Conflict Commission established in 1986 by the Cinematographers’ Union at last sanctioned the release of Proverka, along with over seventy other ‘shelved’ films, including such masterpieces as Aleksandr Askol’dov’s Komissar (1967) and Tengiz Abuladze’s Monanieba (Repentance, 1984). In 1987, Lapshin was voted the best Soviet film of all time in a national poll of film critics, ahead of anything by Eisenstein, Pudovkin or Vertov. German’s film is in many ways a precursor to the series of films of the glasnost’ period that return obsessively to the era of Stalin—much as one of the characters in Repentance keeps exhuming a small-town tyrant. It encapsulates the issues that were to haunt the Soviet Union until its demise, and continue to resurface in contemporary Russia: how are we to retell our history without disgracing our forefathers, magnifying them out of proportion or simply deleting them from the record? Which memories should we claim as ours? German himself was now occupied with an experimental workshop at Lenfil’m, set up in 1988, which saw the emergence of a new generation of Soviet directors—among them Aleksei Balabanov, whose 1991 debut feature Schastlivye dni (Happy Days), based on motifs from Beckett, German produced. Balabanov went on to make Brat (Brother, 1997) and Pro urodov i liudei (Of Freaks and Men, 1998).... TONY WOOD

Dmitri Mamulia: Another Sky -Другое небо (2010)

Director: Dmitri Mamulia
Writers: Leonid Sitov, Dmitri Mamulia
Stars: Khabib Bufares, Amirza Mukhamadi,Mitra Zeykhedi

2 wins & 2 nominations

When Ali’s herd begins dying off, it is time to leave the steppe to seek out the wife who left him and their infant son nine years earlier. With nothing but several old photographs, her former address, and a memory of generic physical details (“black hair, black eyes”), Ali and his son arrive in Moscow where they become migrant wage laborers: Ali in a cement plant; his nine-year old son in a saw mill.

While director Dmitrii Mamuliia has noted in interviews that the film contrasts the two worlds of the protagonist—the sandy, bush-dotted landscape of the steppe with the busy expanse of the bustling metropolis—the cinematography uses visual and aural mirroring to link the two locales. In Moscow, Ali carries bags of cement, one after the other, as he and his son carried sheep carcasses at home. The next body Ali will carry is that of his sleeping son: the accident that this episode foreshadows and mirrors is unexplained, just as Ali’s herd is inexplicably stricken by death in the opening scenes of the film. The sounds of the herd and the nearby highway that punctuate these first scenes are similarly replaced, in Moscow, by the background noise of train terminals, factories, and news broadcasts. Yet, as location and language change, Ali remains silent, responding to his reunion with his wife with the same dejected expression as when he discovers his ailing herd.

Mamuliia was recently included among a list of “Russian New Wave” directors published by, along with Aleksei German Jr., Boris Khlebnikov, Kirill Serebrennikov, Aleksei Popogrebskii, and others. Many of the standard characteristics of Soviet and post-Soviet New Waves are present in Another Sky: a privileging of silence and mood over mainstream cinematic devices (e.g. genre cinema); dialogue in national languages instead of in Russian; and the use of natural sets and non-professional actors. Mamuliia’s use of minimal dialogue and Tajik subtitled in Russian only reinforce Ali’s liminal status at home and abroad. Not only is he at a linguistic disadvantage while in Moscow (he does not understand Russian, needing an interpreter even to describe his wife’s features to the authorities), but he is alienated at home as well. The vices of contemporanaeity have come to the Uzbek countryside as a stack of hundred dollar bills, an amount almost equal to the “price” placed on his son in the Moscow saw mill.

Furthermore, in Another Sky natural sets are combined through editing to capture the daily routine and habitat of the Moscow migrant worker: a labyrinth of crowded barracks, crumbling entrance ways, and sanitation showers. It is thereby fitting that one of the film’s few geographically grounded scenes occurs in Moscow’s Kazan' train station. This extended segment unifies the two geographically discrete portions of the narrative in the same way the station itself serves as the hub for migrants, vagrants, and long-distance travelers arriving in and departing from the center. ...

Monday, 28 November 2011

Alexei Balabanov: Happy Days - Счастливые дни (1991)

Director: Aleksey Balabanov
Writers: Aleksey Balabanov, Samuel Beckett (play)
Stars: Viktor Sukhorukov, Anzhelika Nevolina,Evgeniy Merkurev

An unnamed hero roaming the streets of St Petersburg is befriended by a beggar with a donkey and a slightly deranged prostitute.

To his clinging middle-aged landlady, he is Sergei Sergeiovich. To the blind man who is afraid of the dark, he is Piotr. To Anna von Storkh, an impoverished descendant of an old aristocratic family reduced to prostitution, he is Borya. But he himself does not know his real name.

The hero of Balabanov's Schastlivye dni (Happy Days, 1991) is an amiable dimwit whose only possessions are his clothes (given to him on his discharge from hospital) which he never takes off, the bandage wrapped round his head and a musical box with a dancing ballerina in. In perpetual bemusement, he wanders the crumbling streets of St Petersburg in an existential search for a room, friendship and his galoshes.

Although he finds all three, they seem to be elusive entities. "I had a friend once," says the blind man as he discusses friendship with the man he calls Piotr. It's a phrase that sums up the mood of film, loosely inspired by the works of the Irish writer Samuel Beckett, including his play Happy Days.

The bleak lives of Balabanov's down-and-outs are beautifully captured in the film's black and white photography, which brings out the decaying textures of St Petersburg in exquisite detail. The city has long been used as a back-drop for films, stretching right back to the early Soviet classics, such as Sergei Eisenstein's cinematic recreation of the Russian Revolution Oktyabr' (October, 1927).

But whereas for Eisenstein the city was a heroic and revolutionary city, Balbanov's vision owes more to the 19th-century author Nikolai Gogol. Gogol's St Petersburg is the city which lies and deceives - a vast metropolis that dwarfs the ordinary individual. Eisenstein shot the raising of the city bridges with a falling horse symbolising the start of political struggle; Balabanov, however, presents the more Gogolian image of his hero crossing a city bridge on a donkey. Although Gogol was writing about the St Petersburg of over 150 years ago, his vision seems eminently suited to the city of post-Communist times.

Visually, the film is inspired by Gogol too, albeit indirectly. Gogol's frequently absurdist and irreverent stories have a long tradition of being rendered on screen (even in Stalinist times) but Schastlivye dni is particularly indebted to Grigori Kozintsev and Leonid Trauberg's experimental classic Shinel' (The Overcoat, 1926), nominally based on the story of the same name by Gogol, but in fact incorporating elements of all his major short stories. Kozintsev and Trauberg effectively used the city, its architecture and a thick blanket of snow to oppress the hero of the story with the aid of camera and some shots in Schastlivye dni seem to be a direct quotation of similar effects in Shinel'. (Balabanov's latest film Pro urodov i liudei (Of Freaks and Men, 1998) also harks back to the world of silent cinema, even using intertitles). ...

Roman Balaian: Birds of Paradise Pайские птицы (2008) Trailer

Director: Roman Balayan
Writer: Rustam Ibragimbekov
Stars: Oksana Akinshina, Andrey Kuzichev,Oleg Yankovskiy

An opening panoramic shot with titles might not normally constitute the most rewarding use of page space in a review, but in the case of Roman Balaian's latest film it is worthwhile. The word "glasnost" making a u-turn to re-enter the Russian title in Latin transliteration may seem weird, but it is not a random oddity—rather, it conveys the ideological agenda of the film with such straightforwardness that it may even appear self-defeating. In Balaian's totalitarian dystopia set in Kiev in 1981, liberation can only come from the West—there is simply no inner possibility for change in Soviet society, as there is, in fact, no society at all. Instead, there are two kinds of characters in Kiev's near-empty streets and suburbs—the eponymous birds of paradise, dissident writers striving for freedom, and demonic KGB agents eager to destroy them. Incidentally, dissidents can fly (literally), taking both small scale flights, such as the one to fetch a US flag decorating an exhibition of American photography (the film's heroine then uses the flag to make herself a dress, and thus becomes an embodiment of freedom), and long-distance ones, to Paris, France. Despite their supernatural abilities, the freedom-loving dissidents are almost totally destroyed, so at the end of the film the KGB is left triumphant for "four painfully long years to go."

Despite such over-the-top symbolism, the film presents itself as dead serious—after all, it represented Ukrainian cinema at the 2008 Kinoshok and Moscow Film Festivals, and the contemporary Ukrainian authorities' take on the Soviet past and Ukraine's Atlantic choice has little place for irony. In the opening scene set in a park an elderly man with crutches (we later learn that his legs were broken by the KGB) accuses the country of waging war against its own people and persecuting every individual who raises even a little above the crowd (the simultaneous low-angle shot of the monument of prince Vladimir with a cross provides a spectacular symbolic image of such an individual). The elderly man is immediately apprehended and beaten by a policeman, but Sergei (Andrei Kuzichev), the film's protagonist, an aspiring young dissident writer, attacks the policeman and overpowers him, thereby entering the diegesis in a most chivalrous manner.

Reviewed by Andrey Shcherbenok in KinoKultura

Sunday, 27 November 2011

Abram Room:Belated Flowers - Цветы запоздалые (1969)

Director: Abram Room
Writers: Anton Chekhov (novel), Abram Room
Stars: Irina Lavrentyeva, Aleksandr Lazarev, Olga Zhiznyeva

A very young writer at the beginning of his career and an elderly film maker, nearing the end of his, reach a lovely, tactful kind of accord in "Belated Flowers," based on the novella that Chekhov wrote in 1882, when he was 22, and now made into a film by Abram Room, who is 78.

The novella, more evocatively titled "Late-Blooming Flowers" in the translation by I. C. Chertok and Jean Gardner, is a gently comic, bourgeois fairy tale about the redemptive love of the beautiful, consumptive and flatbroke Princess Marusya Priklonsky for the vain, hugely ambitious Dr. Toporkov, who'd once been a bootboy in the Priklonsky palace.

The Priklonskys are at the end of their rope when the doctor comes back into their lives, though he scarcely remembers the name when he visits the palace to treat young Prince Yegorushka for delirium tremens. The old princess frets about the doctor's arrogance and wishes that he weren't so ill-born. He is, she knows, a catch. The young prince thinks the doctor is a bore and the young princess falls madly in love with him.

Time passes. A disreputable old matchmaker comes by and suggests that the doctor would marry Marusya if she could produce a dowry of 60,000 rubles—the sum the doctor needs to acquire a fine new house. It's an unthinkable amount, and the doctor, instead, marries the daughter of a wealthy trademan.

More time passes. The Priklonsky palace and possessions are lost to debtors. The old princess dies. The young prince acquires a rude, noisy mistress, and Marusya slips farther into a consumption that finally breeds its own kind of emotional antibodies. One day she goes to the doctor's office, pays her five-ruble fee and confesses to the amazed man that she loves him desperately.

The doctor, whose entire life until then has been devoted to money, is transformed. Although it's too late to save Marusya, he takes her on an idyllic holiday to the South of France and, later, when last we see him, he is still making as much money as he can, but now he has taken the ridiculous, dissolute prince into his household, to feed and care for him and to indulge his whims. Writes Chekhov: "Yegorushka's chin reminds [the doctor] of Marusya's chin, and because of this he allows Yegorushka to squander his five-ruble notes. . . ."

Abram Room, who was a pupil of Kuleshov, is known in this country almost exclusively for his 1927 silent film, "Bed and Sofa," and for "The Garnet Bracelet," which was shown here in 1967 without creating any interest whatever. Compared with other great early Soviet directors, all of whom he has outlived, he is a most conservative director, yet the conservativism of "Belated Flowers" has the effect of being spectacular today.

The film is conceived almost as if it were a theatrical piece. Sets never seem to have more than three sides, and it's a shock when the director occasionally turns his camera to show us the fourth wall. Most of the scenes are photographed in soft focus, in medium long-shots, through wide-angle lenses that have the effect of distorting perspective in such a way that we feel as if we're looking at a world enclosed in a glass sphere, as if it were in an antique paperweight. There's very little cutting so that even the slightest movement of the camera becomes somehow a momentous gesture, the visual equivalent of the emotions that rock the ill-fated princess. ...

Saturday, 26 November 2011

Grigori Chukrai: The Forty First - Сорок первый (1956)

Director:Grigori Chukhrai
Writers:Grigori Koltunov, Boris Lavrenyev (novel)
Stars:Izolda Izvitskaya, Oleg Strizhenov, Nikolai Kryuchkov

Cannes Film Festival 1957 Special Award Grigori Chukhrai

You can watch film with English subtitles here.

Russian film fest in Greece

Nikolai Khomerika’s award-winning A Lifelong Night opened a weeklong festival of Russian films that kicked off in Greece on Friday. The showcase, to run until December 1, features a wide selection of feature films, documentaries and cartoons by Russian filmmakers. Voice of Russia

Aleksandr Rogozhkin: Checkpoint - Блокпост (1998) Full film with English subtitles

Director: Aleksandr Rogozhkin
Writers: Aleksandr Rogozhkin (screenplay), Aleksandr Rogozhkin (story)
Stars: Roman Romantsov, Kirill Ulyanov,Ivan Kuzmin

In 1999, Checkpoint received several international awards and the Grand Prix at the Kinotavr Film Festival in Sochi. ...

With a film that follows up on his interest in national differences, Rogozhkin was this year's winner of the Best Director award at Karlovy Vary.

A raid by Russian soldiers on a house in the Caucasus yields a surprising find - a young crippled local boy with a mine and a hammer. The soldiers stare in disbelief as the lad bashes away at the mine with all his might before deciding it is best to scarper. In true cinematic style, the house dramatically explodes behind them, as they make their escape. Although they have survived this attempt to kill them, they are not out of trouble yet; the locals are rather of the opinion that the Russians were responsible for the blast, and a riot ensues. In calming the crowd, a woman and a local police commander get shot, and it is clear that the case will be investigated. Whilst the enquiry takes place, the soldiers are posted to a far-off and inhospitable border checkpoint, and this is where the conflict really flares up.

Alexandr Rogozhkin tries in his Blokpost (Checkpoint, 1998) to strike a careful balance between showing the innocence and the naivety of the young Russian soldiers - who really do not want to be there at all - and the attempts of the Russians authorities to try and be just and fair, whilst at the same time depicting the appalling consequences of the Russian military rule of the region. The bored soldiers trade bullets with the locals for pot and sex. As a chain of minor misunderstandings leads to the death of a local shepherd and leaves the villagers baying for blood, the uneasy truce which has previously held the two sides at bay breaks down.

Andrei Krasko

This is brave film-making with an admirable end, but it fails in comparison with the heights of Rogozhkin's previous success - Osobennosti natsionalnoi okhoty (The Peculiarities of the National Hunt, 1995), a film which also deals with differences between nations and which brought Rogozhkin to international attention. Admittedly, fame has largely eluded him in the Anglo-American world and Osobennosti is little-known amongst English speakers. However, in the Czech Republic, for example, Osobennosti was a great success at the 31st Karlovy Vary Film Festival and has since been extensively advertised in cinema magazines as being available on video with Czech subtitles. The local popularity of Rogozhkin might explain how Blokpost made it into the competition at Karlovy Vary, when stronger films were left out. It might also explain how it managed to win Rogozhkin the award of best director at the festival.

Blokpost also fails to hold its own amongst other films which explore the theme of tension in the Caucasus. The notable rival here is Sergei Bodrov's Oscar-nominated Kavkazskii plennik (Prisoner of the Mountains, 1996), which with breath-taking cinematography and a subtle and sensitive script brings an almost Shakespearean sense of tragedy to the conflicts between Russia and the Central Asian states.

Blokpost, by contrast, is closer in subtlety to an Australian soap-opera, and its lower budget (it was originally made for TV) means that there is none of the visual appeal that Bodrov provided. Blokpost lacks the appreciation of the delicate shades of personal feelings and the delicate observation of human behaviour. Instead, it is all broad, sweeping strokes of the bare primary colours of love, death, hatred, revenge and other such well-worn cliches. The dialogue mostly just pads out some mundane and unoriginal details about how the soldiers got their nicknames. Over all, pretty standard war movie fare. For a director who is pursuing a humanistic agenda, the failure to capture the day-to-day human feelings of his characters is a somewhat surprising flaw. ...

Friday, 25 November 2011

Alexander Sokurov - The Russian auteur and his Faustian pact with Putin

Modern mass culture, aimed at consumers, is crippling people's souls," the late Andrei Tarkovsky claimed. This is hardly the remark you expect from a film-maker. Cinema, after all, is the mass-culture medium par excellence. It's expensive, collaborative, industrial, and reliant on technicians, labs, marketing and distribution. There have been few film-makers able to escape the commercial constraints on their craft. Tarkovsky, who made his best films within the straitjacket of Soviet-era censorship, used to talk of his work as being akin to "sculpting in time". The phrase would have made film financiers in the West wince. The idea of directors chiselling away at their images was the antithesis of Western studio working practices, which were about budgets, deadlines and release dates. The Russian was an anachronistic and unusual figure 30 years ago (he died in 1986). From today's vantage point, he seems as outlandish as a dodo, or a director from another planet. "Tarkovsky is the greatest of them all. He moves with such naturalness in the room of dreams. He doesn't explain. What should he explain anyhow?" Ingmar Bergman wrote of him. The door to that room has long since been closed. That's why it was so surprising at the Venice Film Festival when the competition jury, headed by Black Swan director Darren Aronofsky, ignored the claims of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Shame and various other much-hyped movies to give the Golden Lion to Tarkovsky's disciple, Alexander Sokurov, for his cinematic version of Goethe's Faust, one of the movies showing in a season of the director's work at London's BFI. What made Sokurov's triumph in Venice register all the more strongly was that it came at a time when governments across the world were slashing their culture budgets. His brand of film-making seems to be under threat more than ever. "Culture is not a luxury. It is the basis for the development of the society," Sokurov chided politicians when he picked up his award. However, Faust had an unlikely politician-patron in the form of Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. ...

Roman Kachanov: Down House - Даун хаус (2000)

Director: Roman Kachanov
Writers: Fyodor Dostoevsky (novel), Roman Kachanov,
Stars: Fyodor Bondarchuk, Ivan Okhlobystin,Anna Buklovskaya

The plot is set in modern Moscow, in the 1990s, with "New Russians", Hummer H1 jeeps, bribery, violence, truck fulls of tinned stew as a dowry, etc. ...

Although only 37 years old, Roman Kachanov already has had a long and varied career in advertising and as the screenwriter and director of numerous animated and feature films. The son of a well-known director of animated films, Roman Kachanov, Sr., and a graduate of Moscow’s VGIK, his reputation was established with the award-winning absurdist comedy about army life DMB [Demobbed] (2000). His long-time collaborator Ivan Okhlobystin (born 1966), another graduate of VGIK and one of the most colorful and controversial figures in contemporary Russian cinema, has written, directed, and acted in more than a dozen films since his directorial debut in Nonsense: A Tale of Nothing (1988, short). Down House, their hip-hop adaptation of Dostoevsky’s The Idiot, was the major cinematic scandal of the 2001 season in Moscow.

The outlandish title, based on contemporary Russian slang for "idiot" (derived from "Down’s Syndrome") and English "house" or "house music," can be interpreted as "insane asylum" or "music for idiots." Despite uniformly savage reviews in both the popular and intellectual press (a selection from "the most scandalous reviews of Down House" can be read on Okhlobystin’s own web site), the film turned out to be quite popular with a young urban audience willing to laugh at one of the giants of 19th century Russian literature and a critical literary source of modern Russian messianism.

Placing their film in post-Soviet Moscow, Kachanov and Okhlobystin have updated the major characters and actions of Dostoevsky’s novel, while systematically travestying its serious religious and political themes with great doses of absurdism and crude physiological humor. Prince Myshkin (Fedor Bondarchuk), a computer programmer and lover of "house music," returns to his "historic homeland" after being "almost completely cured of a series of nervous illnesses" in the Swiss sanatorium of Dr. Schneider. He falls in with Rogozhin (Ivan Okhlobystin), a pistol-packing new Russian millionaire, a former komsomolka and femme fatale, Nastasya Filippovna (Anna Bulovskaia), the Ivolgins, Epanchins, and other minor characters familiar from the novel. Nastasya Filippovna must choose between three suitors, Ganya, Myshkin, and Rogozhin, while Myshkin is caught in a triangle of his own between Nastasya Filippovna and Aglaya Epanshina. The film concludes with Rogozhin’s murder of Nastasya Filipovna and the Prince’s relapse into madness. While preserving the bare essentials of Dostoevsky’s plot, Kachanov and Okhlobystin exaggerate the shocking violence and sexual frankness of the original by focusing on sexual dysfunction, bodily functions, masturbation, drug abuse, child abuse, murder, and cannibalism. Aglaya Epanchina (Elena Kotel'nikova) is a punk nymphomaniac, Ferdyshchenko (Aleksandr Bashirov) farts constantly and audibly, General Epanchin (Yuzas Budraitis) tempts Ganya (Mikhail Vladimirov) with railroad cars of Spam, Rogozhin and Myshkin dine on the flesh of the murdered Nastasya Filoppovna, and Myshkin takes a doggy bag home for Ganya. Indeed, Down House begs to be read as a post-Bakhtinian carnivalesque version of The Idiot. ...

Reviewed by Anthony Anemone in KinoKultura

Aleksandra Khokhlova, Lev Kuleshov: We from the Urals - Мы с Урала (1943)

Directors: Aleksandra Khokhlova, Lev Kuleshov
Writers: Yuri German (poem), Yevgeni Pomeshchikov,
Stars: Aleksei Konsovsky, Yanina Zhejmo, Sergei Filippov

 Interview with Ekaterina Khokhlova – a film scholar, the granddaughter of the actress Aleksandra Khokhlova, the owner of Lev Kuleshov’s and Aleksandra Khokhlova’s private archive, and the director of The Eisenstein Library of Cinema Art in Moscow (Biblioteka kinoiskusstva imeni S.M. Eizenshteina, Moskva). ...

Aleksandr Alov, Vladimir Naumov: Peace to Him Who Enters - Мир входящему (1961)

Directors: Aleksandr Alov, Vladimir Naumov
Writers: Aleksandr Alov, Vladimir Naumov,
Stars: Vladimir Naumov

Set in World War II, the film tells the story of three Soviet soldiers who try to rescue a trapped pregnant German woman by taking her on a dangerous drive to a hospital.


 Мир входящему / Peace to Him Who Enters won: Golden Lion (Jury Prize), Cannes, 1961.

Thursday, 24 November 2011

Andrei Smirnov: Once Upon a Time There Lived a Woman - Жила-была одна баба (2010)

Director: Andrei Smirnov
Starring Darya Yekamasova, Vladislav Abashin, Nina Ruslanova

Russia, Tambov Province, 1909-1921. The Russian Village is experiencing the most difficult of times: World War I, the Russian Revolution, civil war, and famine. Peasants who refuse to obey the new authorities find themselves dispossessed of their land or property or even murdered. “Once Upon a Time There Lived a Simple Woman” tells the story of Russia’s destiny during the darkest pages of its history through the life, loves and tragic fate of Varvara, a simple Russian woman. ...

The film is the latest work of the legendary Russian director Andrei Smirnov. He made this film after almost a 30-year-long hiatus.

For almost a quarter of a century, I have been immersed in our recent history. The tragedy of the Tambov uprising, which is the subject of my film “Once Upon a Time There Lived a Woman”, portrays people as anything but servile and submissive, which is the widespread cliché. On the contrary, it shows them as staunchly resisting violence. And it shows deliberate extermination of peasants and the treacherous imposition of the destructive ideas of class struggle on the rural mentality. It also shows our tendency to ignore the woes of those close to us… Today I am “taking the plunge”, as it were, because a film begins its life when it is shown to the audience. No matter whether the film does well or badly at the box office, I feel incredibly happy because I have made at least one film that is entirely my own. By the age of forty, I realised that I had to quit directing because I was facing a blank wall. I had made three films in tandem with Boris Yashin and four films on my own. But none of them had been released in the shape in which they had been conceived. Everything had been distorted. Thirty years have passed during which I have changed my profession. I thought I would never succeed. But, as soon as the prospect loomed of censorship being lifted, I conceived of this film. It was the challenge of my life. I was already over sixty and there I was, given a chance to create a film that would make a serious statement, send a message. Will the audience hear me? I remember going to the Tambov region in early 2008 to choose a location, together with the art director and the cinematographer. It is a land of extraordinary beauty. The famous long ravines in Tambov where Antonov’s partisans hid. The mounted Red Army patrols stood on the hills looking for signs of smoke. The hills, the rivers, vast fields of black earth, the best soil in the world. And the haunting thought: why do people lead such a miserable life on this wonderful land? I think that, until we solve that riddle of our history, we will never understand why we are what we are. It is enough to spend two hours driving in Moscow to become aware of the road rage that consumes motorists. This brings to mind the words of the remarkable Russian thinker Konstantin Leontyev: “Christianity has yet to be embraced by Russia.” And yet, after 74 years of a criminal terrorist regime, the degree of Christianisation of Russia diminished catastrophically. Not since the reign of the Chinese Emperor Qin Shi Huangdi has there been a government in world history that made terror the sole instrument of its policy. Such eras etch themselves on history. This was the subject of my reflections in this film. We are the children and grandchildren, the flesh and blood of that terror. Today, when churches have been reopened, monasteries are being filled with monks and the Church is speaking in a loud voice, pretending to provide spiritual guidance to society… But are we a Christian society? Does society remember the main commandment, “love thy neighbour as thyself”? We have reduced that commandment to “thyself”. And what about your neighbour? There is no individual and no society without a circle of close ones. How do we talk to one another? As Thomas Hobbs said, this is “a war of everyone against everyone else”. This attitude seeps into our souls from the street, from public transport and from offices. But the “war” has to stop some day. I am trying to find an answer to the question: “Why do we hate one another so much?” And I can see clearly that society “does not know what it is doing” and is guided by false values. I can’t help mentioning the monstrous role of television. I understand that, for a young peasant girl who lives in a village 300 km from the nearest railway, television is the only means of communicating with the world. And what does she see? Show-biz and wacky crime stories. You realise that, in a world where it is hard to tell a criminal from a cop, everything is for sale. False ideals and a mentality of evil are being inculcated into people: success means money, cars, mistresses, country villas and this is the coveted goal. If this attitude takes root in the nation’s consciousness, we will perish. Man differs from beast in that he is aware of God and has spiritual values. Without that awareness, man becomes like an animal. The people I see on television are, for the most part, such animals. When something like the works of Norstein, the demographer Vishnevsky or Liliana Lungina appears on the screen, you can’t help thinking: how did they manage to preserve a human face in this beastly world?” On the one hand, the authorities seem to allow greater freedom than the Soviets did, monitoring only political news. But what spiritual life can be gleaned from a news programme that is drowned out by a flood of crime and cheap talk shows? Nobody remembers that the task of television is not only to summon people to the polling stations, but tofoster national awareness. ...

Reviewed by Anindita Banerjee © 2012 in KinoKultura If the dominant version of history recounts the triumphant march of capitalist modernity, its critique from below takes the form of diverse people’s histories, told from the perspectives of those exploited, marginalized, and forgotten in the process. But if official history has already been claimed in the name of the dispossessed, how does one rewrite it from the perspective of the margins? This is what Andrei Smirnov’s film attempts to do by presenting what may be called an ordinary woman’s history of the Russian twentieth century – a woman who, at least in the title, does not even get a name. An ordinary woman’s history of the first three decades of the 1900s is a laudable but difficult project for several reasons. Not only does it have to be etched against an incredibly violent period of transition in an inherently patriarchal society, but also has to push against the masculinist appropriation of the October Revolution. This is not a trivial act of resistance. As Eliot Borenstein argued in his illuminating book about the sexual politics of revolutionary fiction, foundational narratives of the New Soviet Man are not merely stories of immaculate conception – they involve the literal dematerialization of women from both the public sphere and the domain of private, everyday life (Borenstein 2000). Through the figure of one destitute survivor of a million physical and psychological indignities, Smirnov’s film tries to rematerialize the millions of women who were reduced to first pure bodies and then pure ideas in the rhetoric of the revolution. These were the baby, whose fleshly, grueling, and often disgusting material lives constituted the hidden third dimension of the ubiquitous peasant woman idealized in pre-revolutionary nationalist dreams as well as the surreal idiom of Soviet iconography. ...

Andrei Eshpaj: Humbled and Abused aka The Insulted and Injured - Униженные и оскорблённые (1991)

Director: Andrei Eshpaj
Writers: Fyodor Dostoevsky (novel), Aleksandr Volodin
Stars: Nastassja Kinski, Nikita Mikhalkov, Anastasiya Vyazemskaya

Awards: 1 win & 3 nominations

Grigori Kozintsev, Leonid Trauberg: The Overcoat -Шинель (1926)

Directors: Grigori Kozintsev, Leonid Trauberg
Writers: Nikolai Gogol (novel), Yuri Tynyanov
Stars: Emil Gal, Sergei Gerasimov, Andrei Kapler

A Soviet silent film.

"Shinel" (1926) By Grigori Kozintsev & Leonid Trauberg

Andrei Tarkovsky, Marika Beiku, Aleksandr Gordon:The Killers - Убийцы (1956)

Directors: Marika Beiku, Aleksandr Gordon,Andrei Tarkovsky
Writers: Ernest Hemingway (short story), Aleksandr Gordon (screenplay),
Stars: Yuli Fait, Aleksandr Gordon, Valentin Vinogradov

The Killers is an adaptation of a short story by Ernest Hemingway. The story is divided into three scenes. The first and third scenes were directed by Beiku and Tarkovsky, the second by Gordon.
The first scene shows Nick Adams (Yuli Fait) observing two gangsters (Valentin Vinogradov and Boris Novikov) in black coats and black hats entering a small-town diner where Adams is eating. They tell the owner, George (Aleksandr Gordon), that they are searching for the boxer Ole Andreson and that they want to kill him. They tie up Nick Adams and the cook, and wait for Ole Andreson to appear. Three customers enter the restaurant and are sent away by George. One of the customers is played by Tarkovsky, who whistles Lullaby of Birdland.
The second scene shows Nick Adams visiting Ole Andreson (Vasili Shukshin) in his hide-out, a small room. He warns Andreson about the two gangsters, but Andreson is resigned to his fate and unwilling to flee.
The third scene shows Adams returning to the diner and informing the owner of Andreson's decision. ...

Because our institute didn't have enough equipment, the students had to work on films in twos and threes. The two of us asked a fellow student, Marika Beiku, to work with us. We chose her because she was kind and easy going. The story of how we shot Hemingway's The Killers is a simple one. In the spring Romm told us what we would have to do — shoot only indoors, use just a small group of actors and base the story on some dramatic event. It was Tarkovsky's idea to produce The Killers. The parts were to be played by fellow students — Nick Adams by Yuli Fait, Ole Anderson the former boxer, of course, by Vasily Shukshin. The murderers were Valentin Vinogradov, a directing student, and Boris Novikov, an acting student. I played the cafe owner.
The institute had very few props. We brought everything from home, from relatives and friends. I remember Andrei brought a round wall clock and his grandmother's small case for Shukshin. In the institute studio we fixed up an American bar (something that was regarded as the symbol of depravity) with bottles that bore foreign labels. It was a major event in the institute; students came to the set on guided tours.

We divided the story into three parts. I was in charge of the scene with the boxer Shukshin. The main scene in the cafe where the murderers, who were wearing black coats, hats and gloves, waited for their victim. Andrei and Marika did that, but Andrei was definitely in charge. Tarkovsky was serious about his work, but jolly at the same time. He gave the camera students, Alvarez and Rybin, plenty of time to do the lighting well. He created long pauses, generated lots of tension in those pauses, and demanded that the actors be natural. There was no music, just talking and the whistling of one of the bar custmers, played by Andrei himself.

Romm praised the film. And our fellow students liked it too. ...

Avdotya Smirnova: Two Days - 2 дня - Trailer (2011)

Director: Avdotya Dunya Smirnova
Writer: Dunya Smirnova
Cast: Fyodor Bondarchuk,Ksenia Rappoport,Boris Kamorzin, Boris Khlebnikov

Awards :
Audience Award Window to Europe Film Festival, Vyborg, Russia, 2011

Two Days is the romantic story of Petr Drozdov, a senior Moscow official who at the Governor’s request supports the destruction of a small rural museum of Russian literature, but this was before he met Masha, a young literary scholar working at the museum…

 Official webpage here.

Russian film fest opens in Normandy

A festival of Russian films has opened in Honfleur, Normandy, with Andrei Zviagintsev`s Elena, which grabbed a Special Jury Prize in Cannes in spring. This year`s program also features works by Avdotya Smirnova, Angelina Nikonova, Yegor Konchalovsky and others. The first meeting of the newly established Russian-French Film Academy is scheduled to take place as part of the Honfleur festival. ...

Saturday, 19 November 2011

Andrei Konchalovsky: The Story of Asya Klyachina - История Аси Клячиной -Trailer (1966)

Director: Andrei Konchalovsky
Writer: Yuri Klepikov
Stars: Iya Savvina, Lyubov Sokolova,Aleksandr Sirin

Director Andrei Konchalovsky won the Nika Award for best director for this black-and-white movie.

This early film is still considered by many to be among this long-lived and fruitful director's most significant work. Konchalovskii used nonprofessional actors for all but the two lead roles in the film. This, coupled with the documentary style of shooting, gives this black-and-white film an aura of authenticity and honesty that a more polished work would be unable to reproduce. In this respect, the film is emblematic for the spirit of the times. The title character in the film is a simple, uncomplicated young woman who comes to make very complicated decisions concerning the most basic questions of human relationships and personal desire. The actress succeeds in conveying that kind of spiritual beauty that is so often portrayed in physically unimposing women in Russian cinema. But this portrait in sincerity promised to do much more than give Soviet audiences a new kind of heroine. By depicting the collective farm milieu so simply and directly, Konchalovskii intruded upon one of the most mythologized chronotopes of Soviet culture-the Soviet rural idyll. Too many of the orthodox topoi of Soviet village life are missing for the message of the film to be regarded as innocuous by the cultural authorities. The film was delayed for several years and released only in a heavily censored version in 1971. The final release of the film in 1987 constituted a major new credit to the filmography of a director who by this time had achieved commercial success in the very different milieu of Hollywood. ...

Aleksei German Jr.: The Last Train - Последний поезд (2003)

Director: Aleksei German Ml.
Writer: Aleksei German Ml.
Stars: Aleksei Devotchenko, Oleg Fyodorov,Aleksandr Karpukhov

Awards :
Grand prix et Prix de la critique internationale au festival de Salonique, 2003
Mention spéciale au festival de Venise, 2003

In several interviews Aleksei German Jr. recalls how his grandmother, together with his mother (then a very young girl), was being deported from Ukraine to a concentration camp in Germany during World War II. Somewhere en route the train stopped in the middle of nowhere and an elderly German soldier unsealed the locked doors of their train car and told the passengers to flee. If there was one such forgotten and nameless, but decent, German soldier amongst the invaders, then there must have been one or two more. In effect, The Last Train pays homage to these men: decent, nameless, forgotten, and struggling with their individual powerlessness in the face of cataclysmic events. Pawel Fischbach ― an aging, overweight, and bespectacled military doctor who had served in World War I ― arrives in Ukraine on the last German train to make it through Soviet lines, moving against the tide of bodies. It is the bitterly cold winter of 1943, the exact midpoint of the Great Patriotic War when roles have been reversed and nothing is clear any longer: the invaders have become the besieged, soldiers have become invalids, advances have become retreats, frontlines have been erased. Fischbach makes his way to an isolated field hospital where he tries to minister to the wounded and dying. But when the hospital is about to be attacked by Soviet forces, an officer, who has remained at the hospital to look after one of his wounded men, throws Fischbach out into the killing frost and breaks his glasses. It is never certain whether this is an act of cruel mercy or merciless cruelty, but it condemns Fischbach and his companion, a skinny German mailman named Kreutzer, to wander without hope across an impassable landscape where it is impossible to identify or differentiate friend from foe. Their spatial disorientation becomes a visual marker of the ethical and moral chaos that has swallowed both of the warring sides. In this peculiar war movie, the only on-screen depiction of wartime actions occurs as the film moves towards closure: Fischbach and Kreutzer come across the dead and dying bodies of a group of Soviet partisans who had earlier spared their lives. These partisans had been massacred by a detachment of German soldiers, who in turn have been annihilated in revenge by a group of Soviet soldiers. Kreutzer collapses under a tree; Fischbach opens his umbrella, sits on a crate holding the hand of a dying woman-partisan, and freezes to death. ...

Aleksei Gherman junior’s film The Last Train premiered in Moscow in mid December during the film festival Stalker, which also awarded it the prize for the best film. However, its first screening had already taken place in the ‘controcorrente’ competition of the Venice Film Festival in September. The film, dealing with theme of war and shot in black and white, remained unnoticed by the press in the context of the Venice Film Festival (preoccupied almost exclusively with Zviagintsev’s The Return), although it was awarded a prize. In Moscow, it made rather a different impression, especially when set in the context of films dealing with human rights issues.

Gherman’s film is, in a sense, a response to his father’s war film 20 Days without War. Maybe this explains the oddity of a young, clearly talented director venturing on his debut film into the trodden territories of the war film, a theme that dominated Russian cinema in general, but had also been dealt with by his father. For Gherman Junior, however, war knows neither winners nor losers: instead of exploring the history of WWII, Gherman looks at the fate of two men who have failed to make the right choice (or a choice) at the right time. Therefore, they are now the victims of circumstances, of politics, of regimes – which they have or have not elected. Gherman’s concern is with people in particular circumstances, which are not their choice, and how they cope with these unwanted situations.

Gherman tells the story of a German military doctor. Not a soldier, but a doctor. A man who vowed to Hippocrates to help man rather than kill him. Doctor Fischbach (Pavel Romanov) had served in the First World War and seen its horrors, after which he decided to become a doctor. He has been sent to a military hospital at the front line. Although soldiers are being evacuated from there when he arrives, he decides to stay and do what he can: to help the injured. Yet there is nothing he can do. Only a fatally injured soldier remains behind with his commanding officer, who – apparently out of a sense of duty – chucks Fischbach out into a snowstorm. An act of cruelty or mercy? Fischbach is doomed to die: through the bullets of the advancing Russian army or through adverse weather conditions. Maybe the commanding officer wishes to give him and the – equally uninvolved in military affairs – postman Kreutzer (Petr Merkuriev), the chance of survival, should they be fit enough.

Reviewed by Birgit Beumers in KinoKultura

Friday, 18 November 2011

Sergei Yutkevich: Lenin in Paris - Ленин в Париже (1981)

Director: Sergei Yutkevich
Writers: Yevgeni Gabrilovich, Sergei Yutkevich
Stars: Yuri Kayurov, Claude Jade, Valentina Svetlova

Russian revolutionary Vladimir Lenin spent four years in Paris (1909-1912), and this historical docudrama explores those years with a certain amount of humor. Lenin is shown visiting with friends and bicycling with his wife, while several of his philosophical views and economic and political theories are mouthed by a former colleague. ...

Thursday, 17 November 2011

Aleksandr Khvan: Carmen - Кармен (2003)

Director: Aleksandr Khvan
Writers: Yuriy Korotkov, Prosper Mérimée
Stars: Igor Petrenko, Olga Filippova,Yaroslav Boyko

Awards :
Grand prix du Festival "L'automne de l'Amour", 2003

Fascinating, non-musical post-Soviet spin on what must rank after "Romeo and Juliet" as the most oft-adapted literary text in cinema, Alexander Khvan's "Carmen" expertly meshes political and psychological destiny in a well-paced crime thriller. Cerebral rather than impassioned, pic is told from the point of view of Sergei (Igor Petrenko), the fallen Don Jose character, who fatalistically describes his waterloo to his defense attorney, step by step. Pic, which performed rather indifferently in Russia after Khvan's record-breaking 1992 "Douba-Douba," may stand as too much of a generic hybrid for American tastes.
Khvan maintains a nice balance of the familiar and the unexpected, with an astute attention to detail. Thus the traditional opening scene in a prison tobacco factory links the serried rows of cigarettes to the regimentation of the women and formations of the guards, without sacrificing the titillating spectacle of Carmen's fiery catfight. ...

The director, Aleksandr Khvan (b. in 1957, graduated from the VGIK workshop of Lev Kulidzhanov and Tat'iana Lioznova in 1980) achieved critical acclaim as a "stylish" director with such films as Diuba-Diuba (1992) and a short, The Wedding March, in the anthology, The Arrival of the Train (1995). His latest film, Carmen, is a post-Soviet rendition of Prosper Merimée’s famous novella about the obsessive love of a soldier for an adventurous gypsy girl. In Khvan’s version, a young Russian policeman who guards female prisoners becomes captivated by one, allows her to escape, and becomes her lover and accomplice in many crimes. After killing several of her lovers, unable to tolerate her indifference, he shoots her.

Contrary to the Russian cinematic tradition, which values literary sources, Merimée is not mentioned in the film’s credits. In his interview, Khvan says that he also objected to using Bizet’s music in the film, because as much as the story is eternal, for his heroes everything is happening for the first time. Khvan adapts the story of love, obsession, and a yearning for freedom to the post-Soviet environment—and post-Soviet values. His femme fatale lacks the passion and allure of both the literary and the operatic prototype; instead she is practical and manipulative. Her appearance, which changes several times throughout the film, is that of a model, not a gypsy varmint. This comes as no surprise because Ol’ga Filippova, who plays Carmen, is the "commercial face" of the Sukhoi corporation, which manufactures fighter planes. The post-Soviet Don Jose (Sergei), once he abandons his police uniform, is visually a replica of the many post-Soviet cinematic gangsters: crew cut, leather jacket, superior fighting skills. The crimes Carmen’s gang commits are also "adjusted" to the new Russia: smuggling of drugs, robbery of an Intourist bus, burglary at the room of a foreign businessman whom Carmen had also hustled for money. To complete the picture, the flashy Western cars that the heroes recklessly drive contribute to the sense of uncontrollable desire and freedom that the film sets out to create.

By its genre, Carmen is a hybrid of a gangster film, a road movie, and a male version of 9 1/2 Weeks. The familiar plot is complicated by the flashback structure of the film: in the film’s present, the hero is facing life in prison and tells his story to an attorney, whom he calls "doctor." Similar to Aleksei Balabanov’s War, Carmen uses the framing narrative and the oppressive mise-en-scène of the prison cell to provide a meaning to the fragmented past. Sergei’s voice-over narration describes his emotional and psychological state: his growing jealousy, his loss of touch with reality, and his indifference to both his own and other people’s lives. In the film’s diegesis, however, he alternates between alcohol-intensified fits of jealousy that inevitably end in his killing the competitor and being on the run after a heist or robbery, ending in violent and joyless sex. Inebriation, death, and physical love not only summarize the hero’s past year, but also seem to exhaust the options open to him.

Elena Prokhorova in KinoKultura

Wednesday, 16 November 2011

Filipp Yankovsky: Stone Head aka Rock Head - Каменая башка (2008)

Director: Filipp Yankovsky
Writers: Konstantin Syngayevsky, Valeri Fedorovich,
Stars: Boris Chunaev, Lidiya Dorotenko, Oksana Fandera

About a boxer who has lost his wife in a car accident and then loses his memory because of the trauma.

Awards :
Best film Window to Europe Film Festival, Vyborg, Russia, 2008
Guild of Historians of Cinema and Film Critics Prize Window to Europe Film Festival, Vyborg, Russia, 2008

Lenfilm reveals its secrets

Edmond Keosayan: The Elusive Avengers - Неуловимые мстители (1966)

Director: Edmond Keosayan Writers: Pavel Blyakhin (story), Edmond Keosayan,
Stars: Viktor Kosykh, Mikhail Metyolkin, Vasili Vasilyev

 Based on the novel Red Little Devils by Pavel Blyakhin


 The film' is a comedy version of a story about four youngsters who become heroes in the Russian Civil War. Danka, orphaned son of a Red agent, whose father was tortured and executed by the warlord Lyuty before his eyes, and his sister Ksanka join Valerka, a former schoolboy, and Yashka, a devil-may-care gypsy. They make a pledge of mutual assistance, determined to exact revenge on the bandits who are bringing so much suffering to peaceful villagers. The friends then embark on a series of daring adventures. Meanwhile, strange things begin to happen to a band of outlaws led by the ruthless bandit Ataman Burnash. All his schemes seem to go wrong, sabotaged by unseen and unidentified enemies. The mischievous culprits always leave a note signed '- the Elusive Avengers', and are of course the four friends, who succeed by never forgetting their pledge of mutual assistance. They are so effective, in fact, that reports of their deeds are reaching the local division of the Red Army. ...

Full movie with English subtitles you can watch here.

Tuesday, 15 November 2011

Stanislav Govorukhin: Passenger - Пассажирка (2008)

Director: Stanislav Govorukhin
Writers: Sergej Ashkenazy, Konstantin Stanyukovich (story)
Stars: Ivan Agapov, Marat Basharov, Sergey Batalov

The glossy and luxurious Belle Époque world of Stanislav Govorukhin’s The Passenger, populated by the mannered, epicurean officers and jolly sailors of the Imperial Russian barque Smelyi, should be the ideal setting for a light-hearted romance targeted at the kind of beautiful, young people that populate multiplexes today. The film does not lack handsome youthful faces: the names of attractive new actors Anna Gorshkova, Aleksei Koriakov, and Irina Pegova top the credits of the film. Yet the names and faces of veterans of Soviet and Russian filmmaking, including Viktor Sukhorukov, Marat Basharov, Roman Madianov, and Sergei Nikonenko (not to mention Govorukhin's cameo as the consul in San Francisco), signal that the film may not be such a departure from the director’s consistent refusal to court blockbuster audiences.

Indeed, the film turns out to be not a light romance, but a combined lyrical character study and scientific experiment. Two young women, the widow Vera Sergeevna Clark and her chambermaid Annushka, are introduced into the all-male environment of a battleship on a voyage between California and Hong Kong. The volatile results are recorded. Vera Sergeevna is deposited safely on the Eurasian continent, and the ship passes on unscathed, except for the pleasant memories she leaves behind.

The screenplay, written by Sergei Ashkenazi and Govorukhin, adheres closely to its literary inspiration, the 1892 novella Passazhirka by Konstantin Staniukovich, whom Govorukhin has cited repeatedly as one of his favorite authors. Nearly every episode of the film finds a corresponding passage in the novella. Exceptions include scenes from Vera Sergeevna’s private life, when no man is around to observe her. Other added episodes serve to foreground two things: the blatantly sexual motivations that could otherwise be sublimated by the visual pleasure of genteel rituals; and the violence men are willing to commit when their desires are frustrated, as in the case of Tsvetkov’s duel. Both elements are clearly intended to heighten tension on the screen, and should they function effectively, Govorukhin’s audience can better participate in the collective relief that arises once a climactic squall has purged the demon of obsession from the ship.

Though no man on the ship is a stranger to the company of women, the temporary transgression of the boundary between the pleasures of port calls and day-to-day life on the Smelyi throws many of the officers into confusion, increasing the incidence of daydreaming, gossiping, and affected mannerisms among the officers and precipitating climactic moments of the film. The camera shifts among the smitten men as they act in their own individual ways upon their infatuations. It focuses in particular on young Warrant Officer Tsvetkov and his chief rival, the Captain. Despite the Captain’s superior rank, the film clearly privileges the more vital and sensitive Tsvetkov. Glimpses into Tsvetkov’s personal life of jealous observation and love letters pair the young officer with Vera Sergeevna, whose depth of characterization is otherwise matched by none of the men in the film. ...

Reviewed by Elise Thorsen in KinoKultura

Monday, 14 November 2011

Alexander Sokurov: Father and Son -Отец и сын (2003)

Father and Son (2003)

Director: Aleksandr Sokurov
Writer: Sergei Potepalov
Stars: Andrei Shchetinin, Aleksei Neymyshev,Aleksandr Razbash

We shall probably never find a festival where all the ratings favour the film that will win the main award. But the award of the FIPRESCI award to Sokurov’s Father and Son for the ‘masterful cinematography and inventive storytelling in describing an intense bond between father and son’ opinions diverged. Journalists rated the film rather low in the everyday ratings of films, giving it overall the comment ‘not liked at all’ or ‘a little’, and only a third of the journalists liked it a lot (followed by liking a film passionately and being in love with it). So there, Sokurov did not fare too well.

Father and Son portrays the relationship between father and his child, only the child is already a young man starting his military training. Yet from the beginning, showing the father embracing his son and the son clinging on to the father’s chest, Sokurov fails to address the process of maturing, denying the boy Aleksei a life of his own, and making him an ‘eternal’ child. The father (Andrei Shetinin) is overprotective, he is both a father and a mother figure, in the absence of a female character. He inhibits Alexei’s personal life and his ability to form a relationship with a girl: the woman is seen only through a window, and later from the balcony; she is an object beyond physical reach. On the wall in the boy’s room there is a picture of a sportswoman exercising her muscles. Woman as a figure that tries to resemble man is the only known female presence in the father’s apartment.

The Father observes his son at the military training to take pride in his offspring. He is too caring for the boy to develop: ‘A Father’s love crucifies, son’s love lets himself be crucified’. In his dreams, therefore, Aleksei kills his father in an attempt to cut himself free from the family ties, a natural process, but his father physically prevents him from such an escape and declares his dreams as terrifying nightmares, of which the boy must be afraid: in fact, these dreams are representative of the boy’s wish for independence and sexual awakening. Only the boy Kolia, who is visiting, and the neighbour Sasha are temporarily admitted into the household.
Sasha wants to be part of the family, but is only next to them.

Reviewed by Birgit Beumers in KinoKultura

Father and Son (2003)


Writing a synopsis is always an act of interpretation, deciding what is and isn’t essential to the meaning of a film, but writing a synopsis of a Sokurov film is more like an act of exegesis. Not that Sokurov is religiose – on the contrary, he’s much less in thrall to holy writ than his beloved Tarkovsky was – but he routinely clouds his work in the kind of mystification that makes it seem obscure to many viewers. This may or may not be a quintessentially Russian trait, but it’s certainly designed to boost the work’s aesthetic weight. Father and Son, which begins and ends in its characters’ dreams, goes out of its way to avoid obviousness. It takes place in a city of the mind (actually a composite of Lisbon and St Petersburg) and uses an idiosyncratic film language and grammar to minimise the sense that a story is being told and maximise the flavour of symbolism and parable. Under this barrage of aestheticism, though, beats a heart of pure soap opera. Sokurov provided next to no real-world context for the dying mother and her adoring son in Mother and Son (Mat i syn, 1997, the first part of his projected trilogy about family relations), but Father and Son is in some ways very specific. It takes place more or less now (the suicidal mission that traumatised the father’s air force comrade Kolya happened in 1998, although the script typically refrains from mentioning Chechnya) and the dialogue provides fairly extensive and credible backstories for both protagonists. The shadow of death hangs over the unnamed father – his chest x-rays are twice brandished symbolically – and the son Alexei, upset at being given the push by his first girlfriend, has everything to live for. Both of them are macho, military types; the father has a brief flashback to the combat in which he was wounded, while Alexei must make do, for the moment, with the stylised combat of judo practice or death-defying horseplay with his mates on a plank stretched between upper windows. The father knows that he will eventually ‘lose’ Alexei and die; Alexei knows that he will eventually move on and ‘abandon’ his father. Sokurov is certainly smart enough to know that this schema is psychologically banal and dramatically thin; hence the need to complicate matters by ‘mythologising’ the relationship. (“Their love,” we read in the director’s notes, “cannot happen in real life. It’s the incarnation of a fairy tale.”) In practice, this entails presenting the father as a ‘new man’, a caring, fully domesticated surrogate for his late wife, and presenting Alexei as an infantilised adolescent, still calling for his mother as he wakes from recurrent nightmares and still settling for a maternal cuddle from Dad to get him through the distress. To deflect any suspicions of incestuous homo-eroticism in the relationship, Sokurov falls back on the device favoured by all ‘buddy-movie’ scriptwriters: he counterpoints his macho leads with a ‘gay’ supporting character, the voyeuristic sissy Sasha, who is always up on the roof looking for his cat or checking the weather when father and/or son are lounging or exercising in their underwear. Sasha yearns to move in with the Big Boys,and is gently rebuffed.

Sunday, 13 November 2011

Russian rape drama rewarded

A film unanimously described as shocking and controversial has also proved to be successful and winning. 

Twilight Portrait, a Russian drama about the complex psychological and sexual relations between a rape victim and her abuser, has scooped an award at an international film festival in Greece.

The movie from the New York-based Russian-born director, Angelina Nikonova, took top honors at the 52nd Thessaloniki International Film Festival, bagging the coveted Golden Alexander trophy which comes with a 20,000-euro prize, as well as an award from the Critics’ Association.

Twilight Portrait revolves around the controversial and highly ambiguous relations between a married, well-to-do young female social worker and a policeman who was probably – although the story never makes it 100 per cent clear – among a group of officers who raped her.

The lead role is played by Ivan Dykhovichny’s widow – the charismatic young actress Olga Dykhovichnaya – who also co-wrote the script. The disturbing Russian story is narrated in a brutal, hardcore style more readily identified with male, than female, writers. ...

Pyotr Chardynin: The House in Kolomna - Домик в Коломне (1913)

Director: Pyotr Chardynin
Writer: Alexander Pushkin (poem)
Stars: Praskovya Maksimova, Sofya Goslavskaya, Ivan Mozzhukhin

Based on the verse story by Pushkin: Pretty young Parasha is living with her widowed mother. Parasha diligently takes care of many household tasks. ...

Leonid Bykov: One-Two, Soldiers Were Going...- Аты-баты, шли солдаты... (1976)

Director: Leonid Bykov
Writers: Kirill Rapoport, Boris Vasilyev
Stars: Leonid Bykov, Vladimir Konkin, Yelena Shanina

The last film by Leonid Bykov (“Maksim Perepelitsa”, “The Volunteers”), and his last film role.The tragic and the comic, the heroic and the lyrical - all has interwoven onscreen into an unusual story about the fathers remaining forever young and the children coming to the place where exactly thirty years ago their most dear ones took the last deadly battle…

The first public performance of the famous song by Bulat Okudzhava and Valentin Levashov, “Take Your Greatcoat, Let’s Go Home”

• T. Shevchenko State Prize of the Ukrainian SSR for Cinematography to L. Bykov, director and lead actor of the films “Only ‘Old Men’ Are Going to Battle” and “One-Two, Soldiers Were Going…”, 1977 ...

Saturday, 12 November 2011

Valery Todorovsky: The Lover - Любовник (2002)

Director: Valery Todorovsky
Actors: Evgeni Mironov, Tatyana Skorokhodova, Natalya Petrova, Viya Artmane, Dmitrij Maryanov

Awards :
Best actor Oleg YANKOVSKY , Honfleur Russian Film Festival, France, 2002
Audience Award Honfleur Russian Film Festival, France, 2002
Best actor Oleg YANKOVSKY , Annual award of the Guild of Historians of Cinema and Film Critics, Russia, 2002
Grand prix du Festival de Sotchi, 2002
Prix au Festival de San Sebastian, 2002

In The Lover (Liubovnik) Valerii Todorovskii investigates the relationship between two men in search of happiness, of a happiness that lies in the past. The film bears a simple title, but it actually touches upon a very serious subject-matter: the loss of a loved person, wife and mistress. The woman herself is, in fact, absent from the film, since the film begins with her death. Her husband, the linguistics professor Charyshev, tries to reconcile himself to her death and accidentally finds a letter to her lover Ivan. Charyshev searches for Ivan, whose affair with his wife had continued for almost 15 years. It turns out that his wife had lived two parallel lives. Now Charyshev can no longer be sure about anything: Did he know the woman whom he lived with? Did he understood her? Is he really the father of their son?

Todorovskii gradually deprives the hero from all stable, reliable points on which his life is constructed. In search of truth in human and family relationships Todorovskii leans first of all on the actors' abilities, mostly on Oleg Iankovskii's talent who plays the role of Charyshev. Iankovskii develops his role against the backdrop of the lover Ivan, played excellently by Sergei Garmash, who provides with his quiet demeanour the ideal basis for the gradual revelation of the emptiness in Charyshev's life.

Todorovskii's hero has returned onto the screen the image of the intellectual, who is no longer living in poverty and without a purpose in life, as portrayed in Russian cinema in recent years. Charyshev is a kind person, who lives in a supportive and functioning family context. Therefore for him the destruction of the shell of his family happiness is fatal.

Charyshev's inability to understand his own private life sharply contradicts his professional abilities. The first scene of the film shows Charyshev trying to concentrate on his research, but the noise of a tram in the street distracts him. This tram is at the same time the transport his wife uses to visit Ivan. In the end of the film the tram no longer distracts, but becomes the only significant object in Charyshev's life. The image of the tram unites the hero with his wife, with the lover, and after their death and departure with the emptiness and with the absence of a meaning in life. Even his son Petia cannot provide a meaning for Charyshev's life, because there are doubts about his paternity.

Reviewed by Birgit Beumers ©2002 in KinoKultura

Sokurov on Eisenstein, Literature and Cinema

At Turin's 'Salone del Libro' (Book Fair) the one guest from Russia representing cinema was Aleksandr Sokurov who presented a book of essays which haven't been published in Russian. In fact, as far as I know, the only edition yet to come out is the Italian edition. The title of the collection is 'In the centre of the Ocean' (Nel Centro dell'Oceano). The essays are varied- from the film script of his film on the war in Chechnya 'Alexandra', to various work diaries and a selection of his Japanese diaries, from an essay on philosophy and Martin Heidegger to what for me was the most interesting text in the collection: a re-evaluation of the role of Sergei Eisenstein in cinema. An essay that needs to be read more than once given that it is very rich in observations. Sokurov, like Tarkovsky before him, have both tried to find an escape route from the influence that Eisenstein undoubtedly has in Russian and world cinema. Sokurov's placing of sailors in his film 'Russian Ark' was no casual choice: they were undoubtedly an allusion to Eisenstein's 'Battleship Potemkin' and not an allusion that had much of the positive about it. Sokurov's call is a call for a return to a pre-revolutionary ethos and whatever his respect for Eisenstein his is a call for pressing the delete button. Yet he knows, too, that this attitude is impossible. This, for Sokurov, is the dialectic of his dilemma.

Like Tarkovsky, Sokurov champions Dovzhenko over Eisenstein. The Dovzhenko who acknowledged the importance of atmosphere in the construction of a frame and who knew how to render human suffering and pain on the screen bringing cinema closer than anyone else to art and literature. Yet in the essay this is all he has to say about Dovzhenko. It is, nonetheless, Eisenstein with whom Sokurov wants to confront himself with, to clash with.

Sokurov's speech at the 'Salone del Libro' took the form almost of an anti-cinema diatribe. He stated that if humankind were left without electricity and there were no possibility of watching films any longer nothing much would happen, but if humankind were to be left without the book that, for Sokurov, would signify the end of the world. An extreme position but a fundamental one to understand Sokurov's place in cinema. For Sokurov, cinema is an imperfect and much too young art that doesn't have the weight of literature (and for Sokurov Nineteenth Century literature is central to civilisation as is Faust which he is filming for his tetralogy on Power (Moloch, Taurus and Sun being the three others taking a look at Hitler, Lenin and Hirohito).

What Sokurov sees as Eisenstein's negative influence is his extreme masculinity, his destructive energy (leading to a lapse into a cinema of unheard of cruelty- the child suspended from the staircase in Strike), that cinema has transformed the mysetry of death into a visual commodity and he even comes to the conclusion that this trend in cinema has led to the clash of civilisations.

Sokurov's critique (one might almost call it an attempted demolition) of Eisenstein is based on the premise that Eisenstein set cinema on the wrong track and that it is necessary to return and start on entirely new foundations. For Sokurov the return is to Nineteenth Century literature. He often exhibits a kind of nihilistic despair over the possibility of cinema. In Turin he stated that "cinema is where I work" but he had no fundamental interest in discussing this area. In his essay the only suggestion that cinema might find a new path is in a note explaining Mikhail Romm's return to a kind of Pushkinian montage. Sokurov suggests that Eisenstein could only really explore his artistic freedom in his drawings which illuminated both his thirst for freedom and his solitude. In spite of the enormous artistic resources of Eisenstein's cinema, Sokurov concludes that one discovers in Eisesntein the footnotes th the bottom of a page in which nothing is written.

Sokurov is one of the few to have put into words this total denial of Eisenstein which is common both to him and Tarkovsky. His is almost a Dantesque judgement- mixing compassion with condemnation and certainly is a judgement full of nuance. Both one of the most negative judgements on Eisenstein but also one of the most pregnant with insights into Eisenstein.

Thursday, 10 November 2011

Larisa Sadilova: Happy Birthday - С днём рождения! (1998)

Director: Larisa Sadilova
Writer: Larisa Sadilova
Cast: Patrick Baehr, Gulya Stolyarova,Irina Prosyina

Awards :
Grand Prix, Créteil International Women's Film Festival, 1999
FIPRESCI Prize, Cottbus Film Festival of Young East European Cinema, 1998
Best Debut, Festival Kinotavr, Sochi, 1998

Larisa Sadilova's award-winning Happy Birthday, 1998 lies in that rich and underexplored ground between non-fiction and fiction. Set in a Russian maternity ward, S dniom rozhdenia documents daily life at the ward and discusses the social issues which arise there. The film is also a finely acted and well balanced piece of story-telling and is indicative of the suprisingly strong state of Russian cinema.

S dniom rozhdenia is framed by wintry sequences showing the closing of the maternity ward, which acts as the film's central star; a mournful contrast to the summery humorous shots running throughout the rest of the film. Employing professional and non-professional actors, Sadilova, who herself trained as an actress, follows five women who have just given birth and uses their story as a vehicle for both a detailed description of life in a maternity ward and a quirky caricature of life in Russia.

Finely characterised, her heroines are real and human, and their weakness and strengths portray a depth and feeling which go beyond mere description. Sadilova embraces both the idealism and the realism of giving birth. Indeed, the mismatch between the two often provides the charm in this film. In one scene, a nurse takes the bottles of champagne the ward staff have been presented with back to the shop to resell them; at the end of the film, when an overly enthusiastic father presents the nurses with a whole crate of bubbly, we can't help wondering if these are the same bottles we saw earlier. Whatever their previous history, we know where they are going. ...

Pyotr Lutsik: Outskirts - Окраина (1998)

Director: Pyotr Lutsik
Writers: Pyotr Lutsik, Aleksei Samoryadov
Stars: Yuri Dubrovin, Nikolay Olyalin,Aleksei Pushkin

5 wins & 2 nominations

 Many Soviet films of the twenties and thirties, despite the best efforts of the Party, are powerfully revealing windows on the nature of the Russian soul. With his controversial graduation film Okraina (Outskirts, 1998), Peter Lutsik transplants the heroes of these early classics into the contemporary setting of ruthless capitalism to see if they can survive.

Things are not looking good for the collective. Its leader has sold its land to an oil prospecting company and the dogs are to be set on the collective's members if they dare step foot on it. Kolya, therefore, decides to rally a small band of men to fight for their land back so they can plough it once again. They are not concerned with the little men who guard the land - they are just acting on orders - they want to find the man at the top. As they make their way through the harsh Russian winter, they become ever more violent in their means, torturing and killing all who stand in their path. Their toughness is admirable, enduring an icy night in the open country with nothing more for shelter than their coats pulled up into a tent; but they show amazing compassion too. They are deeply moved by poetry, memories of the war and the death of one of their numbers. Above all, they have a simple but honest sense of justice, which allows no room for duplicity or subterfuge. Those who cross this code are dealt with harshly.

Eventually, their long journey leads them to Moscow, where they confront the man who has their land and implore him to give it back. He pays lip service to the nobility of their request and refuses it. Consequently, he, and indeed the whole of Moscow, pays the ultimate price for this New Russian morality.

Okraina, a title shared with a film by the Soviet director Boris Barnet, pays more than a passing homage to Russian classics. Its atmosphere is steeped in their spirit. The film was shot in black and white on specially made film-stock designed to recreate the 1930s look in every frame and even the characters belong to another age. At a post-screening discussion at the film's UK premiere in London (not long after its European premiere in Berlin), Lutsik described his love for the cinema of the 20s and 30s, saying that in them horses even seem to gallop in a different way than they do in later films, and that black and white is in fact "more colourful" than colour.

In particular, Lutsik conjures up the world of Chapayev (1934) by the Vasilyev "brothers" Georgi and Sergei (who in fact were not related at all) and the 1930s films on the theme of collectivisation. Lutsik even had Chapeyev's original score, written by composer Gavriil Popov [more on Popov and the Russian avant garde in this week's Music section], transcribed from the film (the original manuscript was lost) and re-recorded for use in Okraina.

Chapayev succeeded as a film because its hero, the Civil War commander Vasily Ivanovich Chapayev, was a distinctly Russian character rather than the "Soviet New Man," which was at the time irritatingly omnipresent as a role model for good citizens. Indeed Chapayev, the man, the legend and the film still hold a heroic status in Russia and you can even find a page on the web devoted to Chapayev jokes.

The film is, therefore, a battle between old and new Russia, between country and city and between capitalism and simple peasant life. Such is the film's criticism of contemporary Russian morality that the film was almost banned, after a leading Russian newspaper denounced it. Ironically, Okraina, along with Artur Aristakisyan's equally controversial film Ladoni (Hands, 1994), offers an attack on capitalism which even Soviet cinema in its heyday could not rise to. Lutsik laughed off this attention though, noting merely that the attack was a good advertisement for the film and denying that the film was anything but poetic in nature.

Lutsik's sense of pastiche is perfect. Okraina leans heavily on its source material and yet manages to maintain its own stature completely. Pastiche may not be to everyone's taste, and Lutsik seemed quite embarrassed that he had fathered a film of this sort which had gone on to be so successful. Almost apologising, he explained that it was a student film and had never been intended for show at international film festivals - like Chicago and Berlin, both of which it won awards at. Yet Okraina's rehashing of old themes has a remarkably fresh flavour to it and has an uplifting sense of humour throughout, which defies the bleakness and violence of the story. Ultimately, its final message is that whilst life may be grim and unbearably tough, the Russian soul will survive it all.
Review by Andrew J Horton

A strange, disturbing and yet occasionally quite funny cultural artifact from the new Russia, Pyotr Lutsik's film ''The Outskirts'' (or ''Okraina'') begins as a droll parody of a Soviet-era ''boy-meets-tractor'' movie and develops into a violent vigilante fantasy.

In the film a group of hearty peasants from the Urals track down the corrupt officials who sold their collective farm to an oil oligarch. When it was released in Russia in 1998, this story line reportedly was so incendiary that there were calls for the film to be banned.

The peasants are wizened, noble types who might have been sent over by Stalin's own central casting bureau. They work their way up the chain of corruption, from the local collective farm official who foolishly signed a sales contract in exchange for a motorcycle, to the cruel and cynical Moscow businessman who now owns the property. At each step of their journey, which leads them from the wide open steppes to provincial capitals and ultimately to a Stalin-era Moscow office tower, the peasants use tortures, from immersion in a frozen river to threats of decapitation (eventually carried out), to extract the information to lead them to the next miscreant.

The violence, sometimes quite graphic, seems to belong to a completely different film from the comedy sequences, in which a deadpan satiric style (clearly influenced by Aki Kaurismaki's depressive Finnish comedies) pokes fun at the peasants' taciturnity and how seriously they take themselves. One of them is a spiritual young man with a drawn-out Slavic face who might have stepped out of Dostoyevsky; another is a farmer infused with Tolstoyesque simple dignity; a third is a veteran of the Great Patriotic War (known in the West as World War II) who still regards himself as a fierce, implacable warrior and is responsible for the movie's most sickening torture sequences. ...