Friday, 23 May 2014

Cannes 2014 review: Leviathan (Левиафан) - a new Russian masterpiece

Левиафан (2014)

Andrei Zvagintsev's latest is a very strong contender for the Palme d'Or - a mix of Hobbes, Chekov and the Bible, full of extraordinary images and magnificent symmetary

Andrei Zvagintsev's Leviathan is a sober and compelling tragic drama of corruption and intimidation in contemporary Russia, set in a desolate widescreen panorama. This is a movie which seems to be influenced by the Old Testament and Elia Kazan; it starts off looking like a reasonably scaled drama about a little guy taking on big government. Then it escalates to a new plane in which man is taking on the biggest, cruellest, and most implacable government of all, and the final sequence of devastation must surely be influenced by the final moments of Tarkovsky's The Sacrifice.

It is acted and directed with unflinching ambition, moving with deliberative slowness, periodically accelerating at moments of high drama and suspense. It isn't afraid of massive symbolic moments and operatic gestures; I was fractionally sceptical about these at the time, but they live and throb in my head hours after the final credit-crawl. Leviathan incidentally features a horribly watchable performance from Roman Madyanov as a crooked mayor who resembles a hideous reincarnation of Broderick Crawford in the 1949 municipal graft classic All The King's Men — with a hint of Boris Yeltsin. I hadn't heard of this 51-year-old Russian performer before now. His excellent performance makes me think it's a pity Cannes doesn't have a best supporting actor prize.

The film's hero is Kolia (Alexei Serebriakov), a car mechanic with a beautiful second wife Lilya (Elena Liadova), and a teenage son Roma (Sergei Pokhodaev) from his first marriage. It is his fortune or misfortune to have a modest family-built property on prime real estate: a beautiful spot on the waterfront in the lapland wilderness of north-western Russia. Now a crooked mayor Vadim (Madyanov) wants this land to build his own gruesome luxury dacha, and slaps the Russian equivalent of a Compulsory Purchase Order on Kolia: he gets this precious land for a derisory sum. But Kolia calls on the help of his old army buddy Dimitri (Vladimir Vdovichenkov) who is now a slick lawyer in Moscow and he has arrived in this remote region with a file full of incriminating evidence on Vadim which he promises his old comrade will induce Vadim to back off. But it soon becomes clear that getting the old homestead back isn't precisely what Dimitri has in mind. And his motives for helping aren't what they first appear.

Leviathan shows a world governed by drunken, depressed, aggressive men: there is a brilliant scene in which Kolia and Vadim square up late at night, both wrecked on vodka. Later, Kolia and his buddies will go on a hunting trip: they have gallons of vodka, rifles and one even has his old army issue Kalashnikov — and for targets they use portraits of Russian leaders from Brezhnev to Gorbachev. Yeltsin, "the boozy conductor" is indulgently not included and the guy bringing the portraits says he has kept back the more modern portraits — until they get "some historical perspective". (In fact, the current President's picture is hanging coyly in Vadim's handsomely appointed office.) Endlessly, officials talk about the Russian criminal code, giving chapter and verse from the rule book. But it is all a cynical nonsense. What counts is money and power. At the film's courtroom scenes at the beginning and end, the court President babbles through the charges and verdicts robotically. It is gibberish.

Kolia finds himself at the centre of a perfect storm of poisoned destiny. He is a poor man who through a quirk of fate has what others want: a beautiful wife, a handsome property. He is at the focal point of contemporary Russia's most dangerous forces: smart lawyers, gangster-rich politicians, arrogant priests — Vadim is a close friend of an icily dogmatic Orthodox churchman who is impatient and contemptuous of this politician uneasy private confidences. Dimitri, for his part, says that as a lawyer he is only interested in facts. Poor Kolia is at the mercy of events that will happen behind his back: key scenes and moments occur agonisingly off-screen, although it isn't hard to guess what has happened.


Read also: Leviathan

Dir: Andrei Zviagyntsev. Russia. 2014. 141mins

Thoroughly Russian down to the smallest detail, this astounding but terrible portrait of a world going to the dogs under the full protection of law and order - and the Holy Church as well - could fit in, with only minor tuning, into any other background around the world. The sheer impact of its images will stun audiences even before they find out what it is all about. The northern Russia landscapes, all bathed in a chilly blue light that seem to freeze souls are the backdrop,and Philip Glass’ mighty waves of sound leave no doubt that an unusual experience is about to unfold on the screen. As it indeed does.

As a matter of fact, this tale of graft, multiple betrayals, corruption and larceny is so universally familiar that one could imagine it unfolding anywhere. In this case, however, it takes place in a small town on the shore of the Barents Sea (think Murmansk if it’s any help). The crooked mayor Cheleviat (Roman Madianov), complete with Putin’s portrait on the wall behind his desk, fancies a piece of land by the sea overlooking a glorious landscape which belongs to an impulsive, hot-tempered mechanic named Kolia (Alexei Serebriakov), who lives there with his wife Lilia (Elena Liadova) and his son from a previous marriage, Roma (Sergei Pokhodaev).


Tuesday, 13 May 2014

Mikhail Kalatozov: The Cranes are Flying - Летят журавли (1957)

The Cranes Are Flying (1957)

Director: Mikhail Kalatozov
Cinematography: Sergei Urusevsky
Editor: M. Timofeyeva
Art Direction: E. Svidetelev
Music: Moisei Vaynberg
Script: Victor Rozov, from his play “The Every Living” [“Vyechno Zhivye”] Cast: Tatyana Samoilova (Veronika), Aleksei Batalov (Boris), Vasili Merkuryev (Fyodor), A. Shvorin (Mark), S. Kharitonova (Irina), Valentin Zubkov (Stepan), A. Bogdanova (Grandmother)

Татьяна Самойлова

Based on a play by V. Rusov, the Russian The Cranes are Flying is a love story set during the early years of World War II. With her boyfriend Boris (Alexei Batalov) on the front lines - and no sign of life from him for eons - Veronica (Tatiana Samoilova, Constantin Stanislavsky's grandniece) is raped by Boris's cousin, Fyodor (Vasily Merkuryev), during an air raid, and later accepts his marriage proposal, despite her lack of love for him - hoping that he'll eventually be able to replace her boyfriend. Several subsequent events (both joyous and melancholy) enable the heroine to rebuild her life, as well as restore her own sense of self-value; she is eventually told that Boris has died in action. The Cranes are Flying won several international awards, and became a staple on the American art-house repertory circuit into the 1970s. ~ Hal Erickson, Rovi

Татьяна Самойлова

1958 Cannes Film Festival
Palme d'Or The Cranes Are Flying, Mikhail Kalatozov with an Honorary Award to Tatiana Samoilova for her superb performance (U.S.S.R.)

Monday, 12 May 2014

Tatiana Samoilova obituary (4 May 1934 – 4 May 2014)

Samoilov, Tatiana Evgenevna.png

At the 1958 Cannes film festival, in a competition that included films by Ingmar Bergman, Jacques Tati and Satyajit Ray, the Palme d'Or was presented to Mikhail Kalatozov's The Cranes Are Flying, the first and last Soviet film ever to have won it, and a special mention was given to Tatiana Samoilova, its captivating 23-year-old star.

Samoilova, who has died from coronary heart disease aged 80, became the centre of media attention, her elfin beauty prompting many to call her the "Russian Audrey Hepburn". Unlike the stereotypical western vision of Soviet womanhood – hefty, heroic, smiling tractor-drivers among the corn – derived from years of socialist realist films, Samoilova came as a revelation. Here was a seductive, sensitive and serious young woman with whom international audiences could sympathise. At the time, Samoilova was given a watch by East German fans during a festival with the inscription: "Finally we see on the Soviet screen a face, not a mask."

In The Cranes Are Flying (1957), Samoilova played Veronica, a young hospital worker who hears that her fiance (Alexei Batalov) has been killed in the war, though she refuses to believe it. Yet bitter circumstances drive her to marry a man (Alexander Shvorin) she does not love. In the cinema under Stalin, the trauma of the second world war, in which one in 10 Russians lost their lives, had been represented as a patriotic, collective duty from which individual suffering was excluded. In Samoilova's tender performance, far from the traditional wartime heroine, Veronica's suffering is very much personalised among the devastation that war has wrought. The film also refuses to condemn Veronica for her infidelity while her fiance is at the front.

Татьяна Самойлова (Tatyana Samoilowa) - Из коллекции Александра Косолапова
The Cranes Are Flying, with its spectacular camerawork, coming towards the end of the worst decade in Soviet film history, was the first film to benefit from the "thaw" after Khrushchev's famous speech in 1956 in which he attacked aspects of Stalinism. Samoilova, who was nominated for the best foreign actress Bafta film award in 1959, now hoped to profit from the comparative liberty and her worldwide reputation. But although she received many offers to work in the west, the Soviet government prevented her from accepting jobs outside Russia and its satellite states.

Samoilova was born in Leningrad, the daughter of Yevgeni Samoilov, a leading Soviet stage and screen actor, and Zinaida Levin. She was also the great niece of the director Konstantin Stanislavsky, and graduated from the ballet school of the Stanislavsky theatre. Although invited by prima ballerina Maya Plisetskaya to join the ballet school of the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow, Samoilova chose to study acting.

While still a student, Samoilova made her first film appearance, in The Mexican (1955), based on a story by Jack London. The Cranes Are Flying was only her second film. Kalatozov followed it up with another cinematically stunning movie, Letter Never Sent, aka The Unmailed Letter (1959), which tells of a guide and three geologists on an expedition in a harsh landscape to find diamonds in the wilderness of the Central Siberian Plateau. The attractive Samoilova, as the only female, causes sexual tensions between the guide (Yevgeni Urbansky) and another geologist (Vasili Livanov).

Samoilova's next films were routine second world war Soviet co-productions – Alba Regia (Hungarian, 1961) and Attack and Retreat (Italian, 1964) – that gave her little chance to shine, until Anna Karenina (1967), her best role since The Cranes Are Flying 10 years previously.


Tatiana Samoilova Headshot - P 2014

Praised at Cannes in 1958 for being "modest and charming," Samoilova was best known for her award-winning role in "The Cranes Are Flying." Russian actress Tatiana Samoilova, best known for her role as Vera in Mikhail Kolotozov's Cannes Palme d'Or-winning Soviet war film The Cranes Are Flying has died at the age of 80.

Татьяна Самойлова (Tatyana Samoilowa)

Samoilova, who won acclaim at Cannes in 1958 for being the "most modest and charming actress," died in Moscow early Monday of heart failure just hours after her 80th birthday.

The delicate beauty born in Leningrad May 4, 1934, took up ballet as a child before later studying acting at top theater schools in Moscow, including the famous Stanislavsky academy.

Sunday, 11 May 2014

Andrei Zvyagintsev to Head the Kinotavr Festival

The open Russian film festival Kinotavr will take place in Sochi from June 1 to June 8.

The well-known film director Andrei Zvyagintsev will be the chairman of the jury of the 25th Kinotavr.

He is going to hold a workshop for beginning cinematographers. Workshops have traditionally become an integral part of the festival’s out-of-competition program and attract a great number of listeners.

The festival will also present the book Elena. History of Creation of the Film by Andrei Zvyagintsev. Its authors are the film director, the second screenwriter Oleg Negin and the cameraman Mikhail Krichman. The book is based on interviews, diary entries, illustrated text of the film script, as well as workshops for cinematographers and conversations with wide audience.

It should be noted that Zvyagintsev’s new film Leviathan will present Russia at the 67th International Cannes Film Festival in May.

The open Russian film festival Kinotavr has been held annually since 1989.