Wednesday, 26 March 2014

Resounding down the years: Five cult movies that shaped Russian popular culture

1. The Carnival Night (comedy musical, 1956)

Карнавальная ночь (1956)

As the staff of an economics institute prepare for their annual New Year party, a pompous old bureaucrat named Ogurtsov tries to turn the party into a boring lecture and spoil all the fun. Nowadays the plot would win no prizes for originality, but in 1956 it was seen as groundbreaking.

Stalin’s death three years before had ushered in an era of political indulgence known as the Thaw. Directors were finally allowed some freedom of expression, and The Carnival Night became one of the heralds of this new era. Ogurtsov became a negative symbol of the old days, because fun has always been a very important part of the Russian mentality. The film was also of note for another reason: For the first time since the 1930s, audiences could hear a real jazz band in a Soviet movie – during the 40s and the beginning of the 50s jazz was officially labeled “harmful” music and some jazz singers were even victims of repression.

2. White Sun of the Desert (“Weastern”, 1970)

Белое солнце пустыни (1969)

During the stagnation of the 1970s, Soviet people badly needed a heroic figure on the screen. Red Army soldier Fyodor Sukhov, the main character of White Sun of the Desert, appeared right on time. Director Vladimir Motyl wanted to make a truly Soviet Western. And he succeeded, making a discreet, dramatic and deeply genre patriotic piece. Returning home through the Central Asian desert after fighting in the Russian Civil War, Sukhov encounters local criminal Abdullah's harem and decides to protect the women from being killed by their cruel husband.

During the film many of the characters are killed, but Sukhov mostly succeeds in his honorable intentions. Sukhov is also a romantic hero: He dreams of returning to his beloved wife Katerina Matveyevna, who symbolizes home and Russia itself. ...

3. Ivan Vasilievich Changes Profession (comedy, sci-fi, released as “Ivan Vasilievich: Back to the Future” in the U.S., 1973)

Everyone in the former Soviet Union still knows the name of director Leonid Gaidai, because he truly made movies for the people. The most famous is his comedy trilogy: Operation Y and Shurik's Other Adventures, Kidnapping, Caucasian Style and Ivan Vasilievich Changes Profession. Plot-wise, it’s not really a franchise, but the director’s style and genre are the same.

In the first movie a young physicist named Shurik finds a girlfriend and gets his first job, in the second he travels to the Caucasus, meets another girl and saves her from kidnappers.

In the third one, based on the play Ivan Vasilievich by Bulgakov (the author of the cult book The Master and Margarita), the young scientist creates a time machine, and in an unfortunate mishap, Tsar Ivan the Terrible is transported to 1970s Moscow in place of the boring Soviet official Bunsha, who ends up in the 15th century. Comic capers ensue as the film ticks off all the slapstick boxes: mistaken identity, shouting, chases, falls etc.


Tuesday, 11 March 2014

Hard to Be a God released by son after director’s death

When director Alexei German died last year, some of his devotees feared that his potential international legacy might depart with him. While he was arguably the voice of his generation, known as the living torch of Andrei Tarkovsky, the 74-year-old master was little known and underappreciated in the West, especially in the U.S.

His defining film and magnum opus was still in postproduction, and many feared it would never reach the screen.

The much-anticipated film, “Hard to Be a God,” has finally opened in Russia after a terribly long wait. German spent more than 13 years (15 if you count pre-production) shooting the film, showing it to journalists and friends, editing, re-editing and enslaving it in post-production.

He wanted a film like no other before it. Even fans of his work had thrown up their hands and stopped waiting. Then German died in February 2013. Yet film buffs soon discovered hope anew. Rumors circulated that perhaps the film would be shown after all. His son, Alexei German Jr., has also emerged as a film director. In his mid-thirties, he has already had considerable success — in part because there is now an infrastructure for Russian film that wasn’t there for his father 20 years ago.

German Jr. assembled “Hard to Be a God” with the help of his screenwriter mother and screened the work at the Rome Film Festival in November 2013. Huge, reverential crowds watched as his family, dressed in black, entered the theater.

Author Umberto Eco gave it a glowing review, drawing a memorable contrast between German and another director: “After seeing German’s films,” Eco wrote in an essay, “you can rest assured that Tarantino’s films are mere Walt Disney productions.” It is true that “Hard to Be a God” is not for the faint of heart.

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Thursday, 6 March 2014

Boris Khlebnikov: A Long and Happy Life - Долгая счастливая жизнь (2013)

Долгая счастливая жизнь (2012)

Director: Boris Khlebnikov
Writers: Aleksandr Rodionov (screenplay), Boris Khlebnikov (screenplay)
Stars: Aleksandr Yatsenko, Anna Kotova, Vladimir Korobeynikov

A Long and Happy Life is the fourth feature-length film by Boris Khlebnikov since Road to Koktebel (Koktebel', 2003), his prize-winning debut directed together with Aleksei Popogrebskii.[1] Khlebnikov’s most recent film takes its name not from Gennadii Shpalikov’s 1966 production of the same name, but from a song by Egor Letov and his group, Grazhdanskaia oborona. Trained as a film critic at the State Institute for Filmmaking (VGIK), Khlebnikov’s films have, for the most part, firmly found themselves within the camp of “art-house cinema.” And like many art-house films, while A Long and Happy Life was included in the competition program of the 63rd Berlinale, it did not see wide distribution at the box office. The film earned just over 700,000 rubles in its opening weekend and 1.2 million rubles in ticket sales since its Russian premiere on April 11, 2013.

A Long and Happy Life was filmed in the Murmansk region of Russia’s far north, on the White Sea shore. The protagonist, Sasha, has recently purchased a farm and is managing a small potato business, along with a dozen or so laborers. When he is notified by the local authorities that his land is set to be confiscated, he and his girlfriend make plans to buy an apartment in town with the compensation money he has been promised. However, when Sasha informs his workers that they must prepare to leave, they convince him to fight for the farm. “Are you the master of this land or what?” Sasha is naïve and passive, and therefore easily swayed by the unexpected passion the move has stirred in his farmhands. Then, one by one, Sasha’s laborers abandon the farm, taking equipment and money with them until only the unassembled poultry coops remain. “Why did you listen to us? We’re morons. All of us.” When the authorities arrive to repossess the farm, Sasha alone fights for the land he did not want in the first place. The violence he enacts against the police is as naïve and impulsive as the rousing, yet short-lived, idealism of his workers.


Александр Яценко

From Boris Khlebnikov, one half of the directing duo responsible for 2003's Koktebel, comes A Long and Happy Life (2013), a pensive and meekly existential drama about one man's solitary fight against corruption and turmoil in Russia. Sasha (Aleksandr Yatsenko) has recently moved from the city and bought a farm in order to start up a new life away from the hustle and bustle of modern life. However, whilst he's managed to escape the frantic pace of urban living and met a local sweetheart in which to share his dream, the bureaucracy and political corruption that infects Russian society has already taken hold of this isolated idyll.

The state is buying up local land from small agricultural businesses, offering a lucrative compensation, yet failing to consider the lives of the families who have harvested this land for generations. The villagers begin to rise up in rebellion against this attempt to buy up their homes and Sasha, whilst initially prepared to sacrifice his land and begin again elsewhere, has a change of heart and decides to finally fight with them against the unrelenting depravity of the state - culminating in a battle fought not with guns but with passion, pride and ultimately some irreversible actions. Khlebnikov uses the prism of nature to successfully convey the conflict and despair that often accompany our search for contentment.

A contemporary Russian western whose protagonist heads north in hope of prosperity and contentment, only to find the reach of political corruption is far wider than he imagined, A Long and Happy Life is ultimately a disheartening tale about the unstoppable inertia of immorality throughout our ever dwindling world. Told in an incredibly cold and unhurried fashion, the film's calculated and distinctively Russian approach to existential drama is certainly not for everyone, yet behind this languid tale is a vigorous moral message urging to be heard.

Долгая счастливая жизнь (2012)


Read also: A Long and Happy Life (Dolgaya Schastlivaya Zhizn): Berlin Review