Saturday, 31 October 2015

Aleksei Fedorchenko: Angels of the Revolution - Ангелы революции (2014)

Angels Revolution (2014)

Director: Aleksei Fedorchenko
Cast: Dar’ia Ekamasova, Pavel Basov, Georgii Iobadze, Konstantin Balakirev, Oleg Iagodin, Aleksei Solonchev

Awards :

Prize Cine-Club Federation of Russia Moscow International Film Festival (MIFF), Moscow (Russia), 2015
Best directing Open Russian Film Festival Kinotavr, Sochi (Russia), 2015
Guilde of Russian Director Prize Open Russian Film Festival Kinotavr, Sochi (Russia), 2015

Darya Darya Ekamasova

In 1934, Red Army soldiers and NKVD agents bloodily suppressed an uprising in Kazym, a town of Khanty and Nentsy in a newly established autonomous region of Western Siberia. It was the culmination of a series of actions by the state against local native populations who had protested the imposition of recent collectivization measures. The event, for decades unwelcome in the Soviet historical narrative of course, finally found its dramatic commemoration in Oleg Fesenko’s Red Ice. The Saga of the Khanty of Iugra (Krasnyi led. Saga o khantakh Iugry, 2009), an adaptation of Eremei Aipin’s story The Virgin Mary in Bloody Snows (Bozh’ia Mater’ v krovavykh snegakh, 2002). Fesenko offers an engaging, if quite traditional, treatment of the historical event as a clash of civilizations, replete with a doomed love affair between a Khanty girl and a Soviet political “missionary.” The didactically transparent message is relayed by the director’s sudden cut from rich and colorful scenes of local rites and rituals in a Khanty village to the brute arrival on screen of a “steel monster,” an agit-train, signaling a shift in the state’s approach to a more intrusive and unforgiving encounter with the locals. The civilization of the “noble savages” inexorably draws the recent parvenus into friendly relations, and the latter end up defending them against the Red Army and NKVD that were sent from Ekaterinburg to crush the rebellion. The spiritually rich Khanty culture is contrasted with the weak (in some scenes, physically weaker) Soviet culture, which is only able to prevail by using the overwhelming brutalities available in the modern age. The Soviet response is incommensurate with the actual Khanty threat, the film tells us, as an airplane is sent to bomb the Khanty rebel outpost back to the (ice)-age. In an especially heavy-handed metaphor, the airplane strafes innocent wolf-cubs trailing their mother in the snow.

Angels Revolution (2014)

Like Fesenko’s film, Aleksei Fedorchenko’s Angels of the Revolution draws inspiration from the Kazym rebellion, but easy comparison and pat moralizing stop there. Fedorchenko had initially intended to adapt for screen Denis Osokin’s enigmatic cycle of tales Angels and Revolution (Angely i revoliutsiia. Viatka 1923, 2001), but was dissatisfied with his initial screenplay attempt, entitled Notes of a Chekist (Zapiski chekista). He finally decided to combine the two works in a film about the Kazym rebellion “in which individuals will speak in the magical language of Denis’ heroes” (Kichin 2015). With his earlier First on the Moon (Pervye na lune, 2005), Fedorchenko sought to reclaim some of the utopian spirit of the imaginative avant-garde projects of the 1920s (Prokhorov 2006). In Angels of the Revolution, he returns to this theme explicitly, creating a realm of often ineffably surreal and magical moments that seek to capture the essence of the two civilizations that exist alongside each other for this short period in the early 1930s. The Khanty myth of the cat goddess and the fantastic tales that inform their beliefs are set alongside the Bolshevik fairytales the avant-gardists tell themselves. These scenes often have a Wes Anderson-esque visual and acoustic whimsy about them, and create images that linger in the mind’s eye well after the scene: dogs in angel wings suspended above a red dirigible or floating Bolsheviks watched by white-winged angels.

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Mikhail Segal: Franz + Polina - Франц + Полина (2006) - Full film with English subtitles

Franz + Polina (2006)

Director: Mikhail Segal
Cast: Adrian Topol, Svetlana Ivanova, Andrei Merzlikin, Tamara Mironova, Valentin Matsarupa,Dzhul’etta Gering, Uve Ellinnek, Igor’ Sigov

Svetlana Ivanova, Adrian Topol

Mikhail Segal’s 2006 film Franz + Polina continued a tradition of many other war films in the 2000s that revised and reconstructed memories about World War II and perceptions of the Nazis that were originally shaped by official Soviet culture and ideology. However, the increased interest in unconventional representation of the enemy and the locals’ tight interaction with them is not a new topic for cinema in the former Soviet countries. Since the Thaw (1953-1964) the national Belorussian film studio, Belarusfilm, has produced a number of films with diverse representations of the enemy. Thus, Viktor Turov’s Across the Cemetery (Cherez kladbishche, 1964) and War under the Rooftops (Voina pod kryshami, 1967) already show an ambivalent attitude toward German soldiers specifically among Belorussian women. The last film is based on the novel by a famous Belarusian writer, Ales’ Adamovich, who also collaborated with Segal on the script of Franz + Polina.

Adamovich’s 1993 novel The Deaf (Nemoi) provided the basis for the film script of Franz + Polina. The director, however, takes some liberties in interpreting the novel. This is not the first literary work by Adamovich that has been transformed into a film script for a war drama. Another novella The Khatyn’ Story (Khatynskaia povest’, 1971) became the inspiration for Elem Klimov’s famous film Come and See (Idi i smotri, 1985). Come and See and Franz + Polina, separated from each other by two decades, share many narrative and stylistic elements. Both Klimov’s and Segal’s films are made by Russian film directors, yet the focus of their films is on Belorussian people and their struggle to survive during the harsh war times. These two films draw attention to one of the most sensitive and painful topics for the country during the war—the mass incineration of Belorussian villages with all their inhabitants. At the narrative center of Come and See and Franz + Polina is a Bildungs process, with the main teenage protagonists maturing while eye-witnessing and experiencing the atrocities of the war.

Adrian Topol

In Franz + Polina, a Belorussian teenage girl, Polina, and a young German soldier, Franz, gradually develop romantic feelings for each other, while the German troops are peacefully residing in the houses of Belorussian villagers. In the first thirty minutes of the film, viewers get an opportunity to follow the everyday life of the provincial inhabitants and the melodramatic storyline of the two young people. The film opens with an optimistic scene at the riverbank, shot through a cheerful yellow lens, in which a group of naked young boys is swimming and playing in the sand by the river. The tiny figures of the young village kids are mixed with more muscular male figures (also naked) in the same shot. The upbeat, optimistic music in the background contributes to the creation of an idyll in the midst of Belorussian outskirts. However, this opening scene also reveals the director’s games with his viewers, which continue throughout the film. The naked men get dressed, and the letters “SS” and the Nazi military ID tags on their necks disclose that these are enemies. This scene creates a message that nothing is what it seems and what may seem as ideal and optimistic at first glance is the exact opposite.

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Mark Zakharov: To Kill a Dragon - Убить дракона (1988)

Kill the Dragon (1988)

Director: Mark Zakharov
Writers: Grigori Gorin, Yevgeni Shvarts (play),
Stars: Aleksandr Abdulov, Oleg Yankovskiy,Evgeni Leonov

Awards :
Best music Gennadi GLADKOV , "NIKA" Prizes, Moscow (Russia), 1989

Mark Anatolyevich Zakharov was born on October, 13th, 1933 in Moscow into the family of teachers. His mother used to be an actress, but after the arrest of his father she was compelled to leave stage to support the family. Therefore Mark Zakharov spent most of his childhood with his grandmother - Sofia Bardina. In 1943 the Zakharovs family returned to Moscow. Mark’s mother worked as a teacher in children's theatrical circles. So the future stage director took a great interest in theatre early in childhood. As a schoolboy he visited theatrical hobby groups. After finishing school he entered the Actor's Faculty of GITIS (State Institute of Theatre Art).

In 1955 he graduated GITIS and afterwards worked as an actor in the Perm Regional Drama Theatre, in the Moscow Gogol Theatre, and then was an actor and the stage director of the Moscow Theatre of Miniatures (1960-1964), Students’ Theatre of the Moscow State University (1964-1965), and the director of the Moscow Satire Theatre (1965-1973).

Since 1973 Mark Zakharov has been the chief director of the Moscow Theatre of Lenin Komsomol (nowadays known as Lenkom). During the years of his art management Zakharov managed to make Lenkom a remarkable phenomenon in the Russian theatrical life. The secret of Lenkom’s enormous popularity, according to Mark Zakharov, is that the theatre «aspires to follow great precepts of MKHAT teachers, but most of all fears boredom, when it is clear to everyone, what is happening and, especially, what is going to happen”.

Among the most known stage plays by Mark Zakharov is A.N.Ostrovsky ‘s A Profitable Post (staged in 1967), L.S.Petrushevskaya’s Three girls in blue (1985), M.F.Shatrov’s Dictatorship of conscience (1986), G.I.Gorin's Prayer for the dead (1989).) Tremendous success was Mark Zakharov’s staging of the rock opera Juno and Avos (1980) starring Nikolai Karachentsov as Count Rezanov and it holds stage till date.

Mark Zakharov is also the director of such films favoured by spectators as An Ordinary Miracle (Obyknovennoye chudo) (1978), That Same Munchausen (Tot samyy Myunkhgauzen) (1979), The Formula of Love (Formula lyubvi) (1984) , Kill the Dragon (Ubit drakona) (1988). ...

Friday, 30 October 2015

Nikita Mikhalkov: Unfinished Piece for Mechanical Piano - Неоконченная пьеса для механического пианино (1977)

Unfinished Piece for Mechanical Piano (1977)

Director: Nikita Mikhalkov
Writers: Aleksandr Adabashyan, Anton Chekhov (play)
Stars: Aleksandr Kalyagin, Elena Solovey, Evgeniya Glushenko

Anatoly Romashin Antonina Shuranova

Awards :
Conque d'or au Festival de San Sebastian, 1977
Premier prix au Festival de Chicago, 1978

Nikita Mikhalkov, Antonina Shuranova

Early in the 20th century, family and friends gather at the country estate of a general's widow, Anna Petrovna. Sofia, the new wife of Anna's step-son, recognizes Misha, the brother-in-law of one of the widow's admirers: a few years before, they had been idealistic lovers and now she can't believe he has settled for a dim wife and a job as a teacher. Amidst parlor games and idle talk of women's rights and peasants' capabilities, Sofia and Misha rekindle their love. Will they flaunt convention, abandon families, and run away to pursue lost dreams? Rescue comes from an unexpected place. One of the best screen adaptations of Chekhov's works, the film is based on the play Platonov and motifs from some stories. Mikhalkov conveys with warm humor, slight grotesqueness and nostalgia Chekhov's thoughts on the meaningless and fruitlessness of the intelligentsia's altruistic impulses, on the chasm between the "simple folk" and those indulge in idle talk about their difficult life.

Mikhail Kalatozov: Red Tent - Красная палатка (1969)

The Red Tent (1969)

Director: Mikhail Kalatozov
Writers: Richard DeLong Adams, Ennio De Concini
Stars: Sean Connery, Peter Finch, Claudia Cardinale

Claudia Cardinale and Bruno Oja

Torn by personal guilt Italian General Umberto Nobile reminisces about his 1928 failed Arctic expedition aboard the airship Italia.

In 1969, grand-scale epics were falling out of favour in Hollywood. Audiences craved low-budget, anti-establishment films like Easy Rider and Midnight Cowboy, and shunned old-school studio behemoths like Paint Your Wagon and The Bridge at Remagen, in droves.

Mikhail Kalatozov's The Red Tent was no different, and its Russian-Italian heritage held little sway with audiences. Not for the first time (nor last), they got it wrong. Kalatozov's tale of General Umberto Nobile's ill-fated exploration of the Arctic, and Raold Amundsen's rescue attempt is a fiercely original work. Restored and playing in its full 158-minute version as part of the 2011 Russian Resurrection Film Festival retrospective strand, The Red Tent holds up as a bold excursion into bleak, geographical and psychological territories.

Claudia Cardinale

By the mid-1960s, Tiflis-born Kalatozov wielded considerable clout within European film circles. He had won the Palme d'Or at the 1958 Cannes Festival for The Cranes are Flying; filmed the critically-lauded The Unsent Letter (1960), whose plot mirrors the tragedy and futility inherent to The Red Tent (Francis Ford Coppola cites The Unsent Letter as an inspiration for Apocalypse Now); and he released the revelatory and subversive drama, I Am Cuba (1964). His decision to co-write the adaptation of Yuri Nagibin's vast and densely-plotted novel was in keeping with Kalatozov's ambitious nature (the script was further fine-tuned by Oscar-winner Robert Bolt, hot off Lawrence of Arabia and A Man for All Seasons), but it was considered a departure for a director renowned for minimal, deeply intimate works. The Red Tent's arduous shoot and prolonged pre- and post-production life would be his swansong from film production; he passed away in 1973, aged 70.

The thematic premise of The Red Tent speaks of a fatalistic national pride, of personal longing and regret and of the soul-decaying ferocity of guilt. Living in Rome, Nobile (Australian Peter Finch, in one of his finest yet most neglected performances) is visited by the ghosts of the doomed rescue party, who perished in the search for his grounded airship's crew. Arctic explorer Amundsen (Sean Connery) led the rescue party to find Nobile and the men of the Italia , but he succumbed to the wilds of the brutal icy landscape.

Peter Finch

The Red Tent is the first Russian film to have been co-funded by western financiers (its groundbreaking post-production pact is studied in Paula Michael's book, The Red Tent: A Case Study in Co-Production Across the Iron Curtain). Legendary Italian producer Franco Cristaldi (Divorce Italian Style, 1961; Amarcord, 1973; Cinema Paradiso, 1988) realised that Kalatozov's vision exceeded the capacity of Russia's struggling film funding bodies, and secured co-production status with his established Italian backers.

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Thursday, 29 October 2015

The Cinema of Alexander Sokurov by Jeremi Szaniawskiby

To write about Alexander Sokurov is no easy task. The manifold hurdles in the way of such an endeavour ultimately all converge into one single feature: Sokurov is an artist of the 19th century whose work often happens to resonate somewhat with political and historical issues belonging to either our own time or the 20th century Soviet era – an era he has never had much sympathy for. This acclaimed director has declared countless times by now that cinema is, for him, only a job, while his true callings are elsewhere, namely in painting, literature, music, and more generally “serious art” preferably pre-dating 1900 (in a way, though, one should say: 1917). The main difficulty in critically coping with his oeuvre, however, has little to do with the mandatory capability to handle a very wide range of pictorial, literary and musical references and backgrounds. The real point is elsewhere.

Take for instance sexuality. An unmistakable fascination with the male body, along with ambiguous forms of male friendship, can be easily detected in his filmography, (at least) fromDni zatmeniya [Days of the Eclipse, 1988] to Aleksandra [Alexandra, 2007]. But what are we to make of this? Shall we simply label him a gay director, and overlook thereby his steadfast denial of the existence of any homoerotic trait whatsoever in his works? On the one hand, pretending to ignore the sexual tensions in his cinema is out of the question, as they are almost ubiquitous. On the other hand, to impose psychoanalysis, gender awareness and other interpretive tools belonging to a century (the 20th) that is emphatically not Sokurov’s own may be missing the point of the singular aesthetics and worldview at stake. One should thus stick to the filmmaker’s own pre-1900 perspective and regard sexuality in his films as strictly inseparable from the spiritual, i.e. as having to do primarily with the perpetual conflict between body and spirit, or better still with the threshold connecting the body to whatever exceeds it – what the director himself, in interviews, calls “the other life” (sometimes also “the other world”), a strange energy graphically circulating in his images and subtly transfiguring the world into some “beyond” placed, as it were, right next to it. Hence, while it is undoubtedly also a matter of “sexual libido” proper, it is not just that. So here is the main difficulty of critically coping with his oeuvre: to fail to address Sokurov’s universe in its own terms might easily lead astray from it.

Jeremi Szaniawski’s truly remarkable monograph manages to successfully avoid this problem. It seizes the internal coherence animating Sokurov’s proudly old-fashioned humanism while still remaining fully and fruitfully aware of what was introduced in “non-Sokurovian” centuries like the 20th and the 21st, from cinema itself to psychoanalysis and beyond. Sexuality is here an obvious and crucial case in point. Szaniawski aptly and astutely defines the aesthetics of the Russian master not as a gay one, but in terms of queerness (p. 197), the latter being “eminently fluid,” as it “does not refer to anything in particular – it is an identity without an essence” (p. 199). “The umbrella term of queerness does not limit itself to a discussion of homosexuality, nor does it even have to include it: one can be queer without being homosexual (and, conversely, homosexual between being queer)” (p. 198): ultimately, queerness is a matter of positionality vis-à-vis normativity. The fact that Sokurov envisages this generic positionality by means of allegedly outdated and somewhat idealistic concepts like “the soul” or “the other life” does not make his cinema less queer. And queerness, in the same way, does not undermine the concrete, actual role of the spiritual within his aesthetic system.

This is nowhere clearer than in the analysis of the striking recurrence of male feet in his films. Should one explain it as a mere symptom of fetishistic, homoerotic attachment? While never denying this interpretation, Szaniawski convincingly fleshes it out (pp. 200-205) with a whole series of references to Sokurov’s own biography, to illustrious painterly antecedents (Holbein, Mantegna), to the sacred, and ultimately to the idea of a threshold between the carnal body and whatever lies beyond its representability and its death (again the “soul” in all its productive indeterminateness). If most interpretive tools bring along a substantial risk of crushing their objects of inquiry beneath the heaviness of their schemes, this is emphatically not the case here, as Szaniawski does not use them to close down the rich, organic texture of Sokurov’s images, but rather to open it up. Accordingly, sexuality is not addressed per se, but as just one among multiple, strictly interrelated dimensions.

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Georgi Daneliya: I Walk Around Moscow - Я шагаю по Москве (1963)

Walking the Streets of Moscow (1963)

Director: Georgiy Daneliya
Writer: Gennady Shpalikov
Stars: Nikita Mikhalkov, Aleksei Loktev, Galina Polskikh

Awards :

Prix de la meilleure image au Festival de l’Union Soviétique, 1964
Prix spécial au Festival de Cannes, 1964
Premier prix au Festival de Milan, 1964
Prix spécial au Festival de Rome, 1966

Alexei Loktev, Margarita Merino, Vadim Shilov

"I Am Walking Along Moscow" aka "Ya Shagayu Po Moskve" (1963) is a charming lyrical comedy directed by Georgi Daneliya in 1963 that was nominated for Golden Palm at Cannes Film Festival. Daneliya proved that it is possible to create a masterpiece in the most difficult genre of romantic comedy. Made by the team of young and incredibly talented artists that besides Daneliya included writer/poet Gennady Shpalikov, composer Andrei Petrov, and cinematographer Vadim Yusov (who had made four films with Andrei Tarkovski), and the dream cast of the talented actors even in the smaller cameos, "I Am Walking Along Moscow" keeps walking victoriously through the decades remaining deservingly one of the best and most beloved Russian comedies and simply one of the best Russian movies ever made. Funny and gentle, dreamy and humorous, romantic and realistic, the film is blessed with the eternal youth and will always take to the walk on the streets of Moscow new generations of the grateful viewers.

Wednesday, 28 October 2015

Aleksey Balabanov: It Doesn't Hurt Me - Мне не больно (2006)

Directors: Aleksey Balabanov, Tania Khodakivska
Writer: Valeri Mnatsakanov
Stars: Renata Litvinova, Aleksandr Yatsenko, Dmitriy Dyuzhev

Awards :
Best actress Renata LITVINOVA , Open Russian Film Festival Kinotavr, Sochi (Russia), 2006
Best actor Yuri YATSENKO , Open Russian Film Festival Kinotavr, Sochi (Russia), 2006
Audience Award Window to Europe Film Festival, Vyborg, Vyborg (Russia), 2006

I do not hurt (2006)

Aleksei Balabanov is one of the post-Soviet filmmakers who like to experiment with different genres and themes in his films. He has become widely popular among Russian audiences since his blockbuster Brother (Brat) was released in 1997. His first films were documentaries: Egor and Nastia (1989) and From the History of Aerostatics in Russia (O vozdushnom letanii v Rossii, 1990). Subsequently he adapted for the screen Samuel Beckett’s play Happy Days (Schastlivye dni, 1991) and Franz Kafka’s novel The Castle (Zamok, 1994). Balabanov’s films belong to a wide spectrum of different genres: from art-house films such as Of Freaks and Men (Pro urodov i liudei, 1998) to action films like Brother and Brother 2 (Brat 2, 2000), from his war film War (Voina, 2002) to the black comedy Blind Man’s Bluff (Zhmurki, 2005). The range of themes in his films is also wide: from the origin of pornography in pre-revolutionary Russia to the war in Chechnia, from Russian “patriotism” and fraternity to Tarantino-like stories about the everyday life of Russian gangsters.

In one of his interviews, he explained that Russian audiences are not interested anymore in art-house or “marginal” cinema, which is why he decided to make films for the masses—films that people want to see in the theater (Savel'ev). Beginning with Brother, he has proven that he can successfully achieve this goal. In an interview published in Nevskoe vremia in 1998, Balabanov assured readers that he would never make a melodrama because it would be difficult for him to write a script that would make everyone cry (Pozniak). Seven years later, however, he has changed his mind and, relying on the intuition that helped him direct such hits as the Brother films, he has created his new masterpiece—a melodrama that appeals to the emotions of many Russian viewers. [1]

Alexander Yatsenko

Balabanov did not write the screenplay for this film; instead he used a script written by Valerii Mnatsakanov in the 1990s. [2] In It Doesn’t Hurt, he intertwines two story lines: a representation of the consequences of market economy after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the story of a relationship with a terminally ill person. Igor' Mantsov claims that Balabanov plays with popular clichés peculiar to the contemporary mass consciousness that has been affected by Western culture (Mantsov).[3] Whether this is true or not, It Doesn’t Hurt manages to grab the majority of audiences through its use of occasional jokes and comic situations, as well as the lachrymose music by Vadim Samoilov and performances by popular Russian actors.

addition to professional actors and actresses, Balabanov invited a few people from the Russian cultural beau monde for cameo roles in the film. This is not a new production strategy for him: he filmed Viacheslav Butusov, leader of a popular rock band, Nautilus Pompilius, in an episode in Brother, and famous pop-singer Irina Saltykova in Brother 2. In It Doesn't Hurt, filmmaker Dmitrii Meskhiev and TV stars Kirill Nabutov and Sergei Sholokhov appear on screen for a few minutes in the reception scene. The former producer of the Kinotavr Film Festival, Mark Rudenshtein, has a cameo role as Zibel'man―one of the clients of the central group of characters. Thus, It Doesn’t Hurt is full of famous actors and showmen, even if not to the same extent as Blind Man’s Bluff.

In the first storyline of It Doesn’t Hurt, three young opportunists—Misha, Oleg, and Alia—decide to start their own business: to open an interior design bureau in St. Petersburg. The idea of making money is not new for post-Soviet cinema; the “rags-to-riches” transformation has been represented in Pavel Lungin’s Tycoon (Oligarkh, 2002), Aleksei Sidorov’s TV mini-series The Brigade (Brigada, 2002), and Balabanov’s own Blind Man’s Bluff. The second storyline is about Natella Antonovna, or Tata (Renata Litvinova), a 27 year-old young woman who is dying from blood cancer and who is financially supported by Sergei Sergeevich (Nikita Mikhalkov). She is well taken care of by him and he does not require any sexual favors from her in return; he just needs to have a place where he can relax and where he can be loved and appreciated. Tata becomes Misha, Oleg, and Alia’s first client and their “lucky coin” because she begins to advertise their interior design bureau amongst her numerous acquaintances. Misha and Tata fall in love, and Tata leaves Sergei Sergeevich with his big apartment in the center of St. Petersburg, good food, and the medicine that can prolong her life. She chooses freedom, alcohol, and fun over life in a gilded cage and, as in its American counterparts, dies at the end of the film.

Like many of Balabanov’s previous films, It Doesn’t Hurt is set in St. Petersburg. Cameraman Sergei Astakhov (who did not work with Balabanov on Blind Man’s Bluff) returns with his gloomy colors for the sets, long shots of the city, dark stairways of old apartment buildings, and crowded streets. Most of the events in It Doesn’t Hurt take place inside buildings. One of the working titles of the film was Reconstruction (Remont), and for the settings, Balabanov uses a number of apartments of wealthy people who have done some major home improvements. Unlike the young architects’ apartment, which is old and dark, has scuffed walls and homeless people living one floor up in the attic, the apartments of the rich elite of St. Petersburg are full of light and the walls are painted white—the color of aristocrats. The white stairs to the second floor of these apartments and the white columns both in Tata’s apartment and in the hall at the reception organize space vertically, alluding to the existence of social strata.

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Alexei German: Hard to Be a God - Review

The past is another planet – they do things differently there. This monochrome dream-epic of medieval cruelty and squalor is a non-sci-fi sci-fi; a monumental, and monumentally mad film that the Russian film-maker Alexei German began working on around 15 years ago. It was completed by his son, Alexei German Jr, after the director’s death in 2013. If ever a movie deserved the title folie de grandeur it is this, placed before audiences on a take-it-or-leave-it basis: maniacally vehement and strange, a slo-mo kaleidoscope of chaos and also a relentless prose poem of fear, featuring three hours’ worth of non-sequitur dialogue, where each line is an imagist stab with nothing to do what has just been said.

What on earth does it mean? I have my own theory, of which more in a moment. Hard to Be a God is based on the 1964 novel by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, whose later work Roadside Picnic was filmed by Andrei Tarkovsky in 1979 as Stalker. It is set in what appears to be a horrendous central European village of the middle ages, as imagined by Hieronymus Bosch, where grotesquely ugly and wretched peasants are condemned to clamber over each other for all eternity, smeared in mud and blood: a world beset with tyranny and factional wars between groups called “Blacks” and “Greys”. In the midst of this, what looks like an imperious baronial chieftain called Don Rumata, played by Leonid Yarmolnik, walks with relative impunity: this sovereignty is based on his claim to be descended from a god.

And in a way it is true. Because this current location is an alien planet, eerily and exactly similar to our own, and Rumata is a secret observer or interloper from Earth. How he arrived there is a mystery. There are no scenes of him hiding a spaceship with branches or secretly reporting back to base with some incongruously non-medieval bleeping transmitter. He has gone native so thoroughly, and become so indistinguishable from the inhabitants, that his belief in his origins could be a delusion. But for a medieval earthling to have conceived such a futurist idea would be a sign of almost extraterrestrial genius – of the sort I’m now inclined to attribute to Alexei German. At any rate, our world and the other world are basically the same: it reminded me of Tarkovsky’s Solaris in this respect, and also his Andrei Rublev. (Another comparison is Monty Python and the Holy Grail, in which King Arthur was identified by the peasants, because “he hasn’t got shit all over him”.)

It really is authentically and awe-inspiringly insane, an unspooling nightmare of dismay, with long takes opening up a seamless surreal panorama. German appears to have overdubbed the dialogue (a little like Alexandr Sokurov) so that wherever they are spoken, lines sound like they are being intoned from within – which makes it all even more like a bad dream. There is a great deal of that Kafkaesque anxiety and wounded humour of the kind that German brought to the satires of the Stalin era from earlier in his career.

Each shot is a vision of pandemonium: a depthless chiaroscuro composition in which dogs, chickens, owls and hedgehogs appear on virtually equal terms with the bewildered humans, who themselves are semi-bestial. The camera ranges lightly over this panorama of bedlam, and characters both important and unimportant will occasionally peer stunned into the camera lens, like passersby in some documentary.

The most startling lines are those in which people complain about the lack of a Renaissance: “Where’s the art? Where’s the Renaissance?” moans one. In my view, this is the key. Just as in Narnia it is always winter and never Christmas, so in Hard to Be a God it is always the middle ages and never the Renaissance. Cultural and human advances never arrive in this alternative Earth, and what we are seeing is not the middle ages but the present day.

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Tuesday, 27 October 2015

Fedor Bondarchuk: 'Stalingrad annoyed a lot of people'

After Fedor Bondarchuk's 2005 Afghanistan war film The 9th Company marked his coming of age, Russian journalists gave the young director the cinematic equivalent of the Persil test. They knocked up a video putting scenes from the movie side by side with ones from his father Sergei's 1975 second world war classic They Fought for Their Country. "I have never tried to copy him," says Bondarchuk Jr, "but I was absolutely shocked because they were 100% the same camera angles, the same type of editing, the same sequence of frames." 

History seems to like doing that cyclical thing with the 46-year-old Russian director. His father was a Soviet-era cultural titan whose seven-hour adaptation of War and Peace was the world's most expensive film project in the 1960s. That grandiosity is in Fedor's genes is apparent from the stunning first sequence in his new war epic, Stalingrad, in which flame-wreathed Red Army troops storm through a bombed fuel dump on the banks of the Volga. And breaking records, too: $52m in domestic box office made it Bondarchuk's second time in 10 years, after 9th Company, at the top of the list of Russia's most successful films ever.

Stalingrad, the first non-American Imax film, is a mesmerising blitz – making up for what it lacks in emotional TNT by hanging shell-shocked in the husk of the city, numinously picking out each pulverised mote of dust and despairing grimace. It was Bondarchuk's attempt, he says, to invent a new cinematic language. But he had to tread carefully. "The second world war is a sacred theme to most Russians, and it is usually depicted very conservatively," he says. "We wanted to break down that attitude a bit, but it annoyed a lot of people. When they saw the trailer with Columbia Pictures, an American logo, at the start of it, cut to a popular English-language song, What a Wonderful World, just imagine what kind of comments we got."

Perhaps it was always going to be someone of Bondarchuk's pedigree who got to shepherd such a project – which, with the film also winning Russia's foreign-language Oscar nomination, is also charged with raising the profile of the country's beleaguered industry. Married to the editor of the Russian Hello! magazine, Bondarchuk is firmly part of the new Russian establishment; he has been a prominent Putin supporter and paid-up member of the United Russia party for many years, another reason his films draw so much fire. "People don't react to me as a director but to my political preferences," he says. "The state supports 90% of the film industry here, so often criticism of the films is mixed up with the general attitude toward those in power. This is OK, this is normal. But it doesn't relate to cinema in any possible way."

Bondarchuk, being in the crosshairs, seems up for a scrap. Refusing to dwell on the film's fans ("The haters are the more interesting bunch"), he has an air of casual iconoclasm. Chatting over Skype – a blue baseball cap over his shaved head, middle right-hand finger in a splint from a recent snowboarding accident – he is incisive and tart, frequently interrupting his own translator. After graduating from the VGIK film school in Moscow at the end of the 80s, he emerged as one of the new wave of music video and ad directors in modern, capitalist Russia – racy stuff from the son of the man Stalin once made a People's Artist of the USSR.

But the cinema industry, like most other things in 90s Russia, was in disarray. It took Bondarchuk until 2005 to make 9th Company, which was firmly drilled in line with the flashy MTV ethos. He had spent six years raising the film's meagre $6m budget – typical of the resourceful thrift at play in the new breed of Russian blockbuster. (Stalingrad makes $30m look like what, in Hollywood, would cost three or four times that.) He made the two-part sci-fi saga The Inhabited Island a few years later, but he has chalked up far more acting credits, also following in the footsteps of his mother Irina Skobtseva, who appeared in many of his father's works, and his older sister Natalya, who worked with Andrei Tarkovsky.

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Pyotr Mamonov - from punk rocker to holy fool

It’s a starry night in southern Russia. An elderly man is sitting hunched over on a park bench. He wears a drab windbreaker and loafers. He is thin and bald, with practically almost no front teeth. He looks like a cross between Steve Jobs and Ivan the Terrible. “The world is a single organism,” he says. “If something is out of order, the whole body aches. For example, I’ve got a toothache, and all of me cries: ‘Oh! It’s the same here.’”

This is Pyotr Mamonov, once a cult figure in 1980s underground rock as part of the band Zvuki Mu, which worked with famed producer Brian Eno. “I have never seen anything like it. This man is simply possessed,” Eno once said of Mamonov. Music critics claim that Russian punk grew out of Mamonov’s shows. On stage, his magical grace and raving temperament created a genre of absurdist one-man theater that played to packed audiences for years.

But those tumultuous days are in the past: Now Mamonov seldom leaves the remote village in the Moscow Region where he has been living off the land for the last 15 years with his wife, meditating on life in between farming. Mamonov is now seeped in Orthodox spirituality, and he has minimized his contact with the outside world. “When I was 45, I found myself in an impasse and I kept thinking about those important issues: What are we doing on this Earth? And then I came to faith: the Lord revealed Himself to me. I realized why I was alive,” Mamonov says seriously.

He is still remembered by the public, though, and his rare concerts in Moscow play to full houses. Mamonov performs, among other pieces, songs from his “pre-Christian period,” explaining that the songs are intended to show people how not to live. In fact, you can hardly even call them songs. The old man plays two chords on an expensive Gibson as if he is holding a cheap battered guitar in his hands, accompanying them with ironic texts that verge on sarcasm. The critics facetiously describe this genre as “Russian blues.” His concerts are attended not only by loyal music fans but also by film buffs: Mamonov is currently better known as an actor and an Orthodox “holy fool” who speaks his mind without any inhibitions. In 2006, when he received Russia’s Best Actor award for his performance as a repentant hermit in the film “The Island (Ostrov),” Mamonov appeared before a fashionable audience in a knit cardigan, jeans, and sneakers, and lamented the crowd’s indifference to the real problems of Russia.

“Do you expect Putin to solve these problems? Putin is a wimp, an intelligence officer, what can he do? We should do it ourselves,” Mamonov said, much to the embarrassment of the show-biz stars in attendance.

Mamonov was born in 1951 in the center of Moscow, the son of a translator and engineer. He formed his first band in the mid-1960s, riding the wave of Beatlemania. He soon became a wildly popular Moscow hippie. His popularity owed much to his taste and talent for titillating the public. Mamonov would behave first as a chimpanzee, then as a huge reptile, tying himself up in all sorts of knots and mimicking epileptic fits. Mamonov’s fans aptly described his act as “Russian folk hallucination.” In the 1980s, at the peak of his musical popularity, Mamonov’s life, as he admits, revolved around two things: “women and booze.” At those times, he was rarely completely sober and was always ready to pick a fight, sometimes ending up in intensive care. After recording the album “Zvuki Mu” in London in 1989, he withdrew from society and disbanded the group.

In 1988, he became a popular actor after playing a paranoid drug lord in the cult Soviet film “The Needle (Igla),” which starred Viktor Tsoi, the frontman of the iconic rock band Kino. He won international acclaim for the 1990 musical film “Taxi Blues,” which garnered an award for best director at Cannes. He continued to work with that film’s director, Pavel Lungin, in late 2000s to produce two more films, “The Island” and “The Tsar,” which collected many prizes at Russian and international film festivals. And while in “The Island” he, in fact, played himself, in “The Tsar,” he played Ivan the Terrible, famous for his brutality. He recently appeared in the year’s most successful Russian film, “Chapiteau Show,” which won a prize at the Moscow Film Festival.

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Monday, 26 October 2015

Sergei Eisenstein: Ivan the Terrible - Иван Грозный, Part 1 (1944) - Full movie with English subtitles

Ivan the Terrible (1944.1945)

Directed by Sergei Eisenstein
Starring Nikolai Cherkasov, Lyudmila Tselikovskaya, Serafima Birman,Mikhail Nazvanov

A majestic synthesis of disparate forms, Sergei Eisenstein’s final film seems to be as much a ballet or an opera or a moving painting (or a mutant kabuki show) as it is a movie. As elaborately scored by the distinguished composer Sergei Prokofiev, the two-part Ivan the Terrible is a spectacle unlike any other.

Eisenstein followed up on his 1938 costume epic Alexander Nevsky with a portrait of the Muscovite warrior-king Ivan IV, a contemporary of Henry VIII and Elizabeth I who, known as “the Terrible” for his ruthlessness, was the author of the Russian state. Official art with a vengeance, Ivan the Terrible opens in 1547 amid the Byzantine pageantry of Ivan’s coronation and, moving from one crisis in his absolute authority to the next, manages a sustained intensity that is all the more remarkable for its relative absence of conventional action.

In Ivan, Eisenstein reinvented the historical epic of Alexander Nevsky as a chamber piece, at once megalomaniacal and claustrophobic. The conception is grandiose. Naturalism scarcely exists. The performances are as telegraphic and exaggerated as any in the silent cinema. The movie creates its own sign-system. Reaction shots reduced to close-up eye movements accentuate the pervasive atmosphere of intrigue, jealousy, and surveillance. Even the pageantry of battle is employed as a kind of shorthand for frozen hysteria. (Meanwhile, Prokofiev’s score juxtaposes two warring themes to suggest the two sides of Ivan’s personality—the dramatic clarion call of nobility vies with the jazz-inflected oboe trill of sickening suspicion.)

Not even two decades earlier, Eisenstein had attacked the ultra-expressionistic Cabinet of Dr. Caligari as an example of a decadent theatricality. Here, using all the resources of mise-en-scène (shadow play, museum-quality props, outlandish costumes), and cutting on music or choreographed gesture, Eisenstein’s method goes beyond what the French called caligarisme to approach animation. Ivan is as stylized as Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, as detailed as Pinocchio. Although inspired by the elongated figures of El Greco, Nikolai Cherkasov’s stooped, skinny Ivan might equally have been modeled on a Disney vulture. (Indeed, while Eisenstein was preparing Ivan, he made notes for an essay on the American cartoon mogul, observing of Disney’s Peter and the Wolf, “How interesting! He and I both have—Prokofiev.”)

The extremity of Eisenstein’s vision is scarcely inappropriate to the situation of his protagonist. An orphan who was placed on the throne of Muscovy at the age of three, Ivan is surrounded by internal and external enemies. Battle sequences aside, the action takes place almost entirely in the twisting corridors of a windowless cavern, a set that makes paranoia tangible, particularly in the movie’s second part. In this, Eisenstein was able to give form to the inexpressible quality of Russian life under Stalin’s rule.

Among other things, Ivan is a masterpiece of Stalinist architecture. As historian James H. Billington observed in his interpretive chronicle of Russian culture The Icon and the Axe, “the mammoth mosaics in the Moscow subway, the unnecessary spires and fantastic frills of civic buildings, the leaden chandeliers and dark foyers of reception chambers—all send the historical imagination back to the somber world of Ivan the Terrible.” By 1941, the analogy was quasi-official. Not only did Ivan’s terror provide means to legitimize Stalin’s, the 16th-century tsar’s war against Livonia offered historical justification for Stalin’s annexation of the Baltic states. (Eisenstein’s Ivan was paralleled by Valentin Kostylev’s multiparty historical novel and the reprinting of a 1922 biography, augmented with quotations from Stalin.)

But Ivan also represents Eisenstein’s experience of what Russians call the Great Patriotic War. In June 1941, even as the filmmaker worked on the script for his projected three-part epic, Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union. Moscow was heavily bombed that fall and most of Mosfilm evacuated beyond the Urals to Alma Ata, the capital of Khazhakstan. There, after many delays and the Battle of Stalingrad, Ivan began filming in the spring of 1943. Since electrical power was at a premium, due to the war effort, much of the shooting was done at night.

Ivan the Terrible, Part I had its premiere a few months before the fall of Berlin. The movie not only dramatized Ivan’s pledge to make Moscow the “third Rome” and ended with a sinuous procession of the Russian people through the snow begging their leader to return to them, it was a triumph that presaged a greater one—namely, the victory over the Nazis in World War II. (Still, many understood it to concern the Soviet Union’s internal politics. When the movie opened in the U.S. in 1947, James Agee compared it favorably to Shakespeare’s historical plays: “more politically knowledgeable and incomparably hotter to handle.”) Eisenstein received the Stalin prize and immediately began filming Part II, complete with an orgiastic red, black, and gold banquet sequence that was shot on Agfa color-stock captured from the Germans.

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Sunday, 25 October 2015

Ivan Vyrypaev: Salvation - Спасение (2015)

Salvation (2015)

Director and scriptwriter Ivan Vyrypaev
Cast Polina Grishina, Karolina Gruszka, Cazimir Liske, Vanchuk Fargo, Angchuk Phuntsok, Diana Zamojska, Father Edward, Ivan Vyrypaev

Awards :
Best actress Polina GRISHINA , Open Russian Film Festival Kinotavr, Sochi (Russia), 2015

Salvation (2015)

Sister Anna, a young Catholic nun from Poland, is sent as missionary to a congregation in the Himalayas. Anna is 25 years old and has spent half of her life in the monastery. For the first time she now goes to another country: the authentic region of Ladakh, which is part of Tibet and on the territory of India. Having arrived there, Sister Anna finds herself in a completely unfamiliar world. She clashes with an entirely different culture, with different energies and another religion. The mysterious world of Tibet and the accidental meetings on the way raise complex questions and ideas.


Vera Storozheva: Nine Days and One Morning - 9 дней и одно утро (2014)

9 days and one morning (2014)

Director: Vera Storozheva
Cast: Anna Shcherbinina, Ol’ga Popova, Xavier Gallais, Sergei Puskepalis, Gleb Puskepalis, Svetlana Toma, Sergei Popov Producers: Vera Storozheva, Anna Popova

Director, producer, screenwriter and actress Vera Storozheva is a prolific artist who, since the early 1990s, has explored art-house and mainstream territory. She has directed 25 television documentaries, nine feature-length films and a television serial. In addition to several humble melodramas, among which are three “feel-good” New Year’s pictures, Storozheva has cemented her reputation as internationally-renowned director with the widely-acclaimed Sky. Plane. Girl (Nebo. Samolet. Devushka, 2002) and Traveling with Pets (Puteshestvie s domashnimi zhivotnymi, 2007). In her early “art-house period”, she was the creative collaborator on Kira Muratova and Renata Litvinova’s projects: as actress in The Asthenic Syndrome (Astenicheskii sindrom, 1989) and Goddess, How I Fell in Love (Boginia, kak ia poiubila, 2004), as co-scriptwriter for Three Stories (Tri istorii, 1997), and as director of Sky. Plane. Girl. Inspired by this famous collaboration, Storozheva’s women-centered perspective especially in Sky. Plane. Girl and Traveling with Pets has been praised by many critics for constructing women’s existential search on women’s terms.

Anna Shcherbinina

Shot in Rostov (Rostov Veliky)—the renowned spiritual center of Russia and one of the oldest towns—Nine Days was conceived as third in a trilogy of Storozheva’s provincial stories (echoing Muratova’s “provincial melodramas”), which also includes Traveling with Pets and Spring will Soon be Here (Skoro vesna, 2009). Like the other two films, Nine Days is concerned with human relationships, touches on the orphan and animal themes, and explores the emotions of mature women. Yet in contrast to the filmmaker’s earlier works, there is an international twist to the provincial story, inviting a series of “us vs. them” contrasts—complete with all the clichéd juxtapositions and conciliations. Although the film received recognition for its visual style and compelling story in numerous festivals, Nine Days is deemed to be more interested in the Kremlin-backed patriotic staging of the Russian idea and falls into line with well-trodden formulas.

Olga Popova, Anna Shcherbinina

The film’s title refers to the time which the former orphan, Anna Kruglova (Anna Shcherbinina), now a Paris-based top fashion model, is set to stay in her native town where she grew up until, at the age of nine, she was adopted by a French couple. Her return is not triggered by nostalgia, but because of her engagement in marketing and charitable missions of a famous cosmetics brand that is about to enter the Russian market. Anna’s first destination is her former orphanage, where children recite Soviet-style verses about a happy childhood in her honor (“Our native orphanage, it’s such a nice place to live!”). Anna delivers a frothy motivational “fate gives a chance to any and every one of us!” speech to the bewildered and skeptical orphans with angry eyes. That the children hope for international adoption and a fate similar to Anna’s becomes evident when one orphan, hushed by the adults, asks Anna whether her French adoptive parents will return to their orphanage again. Anna is at a loss for a convincing answer, and the exposed hollow rhetoric of her optimistic address can only be remedied by smothering the children with Western cosmetic products.

Xavier Galle

International “tensions” continue in the next scene. Anna and her French boyfriend, the photographer Michel (Xavier Gallais) who accompanies her on this trip, are driven back to their hotel by the Head of the Department of Culture, Sergei Sergeevich. Sergei tells Anna that they should have gone to a local eatery because the food is very tasty there. Anna protests, remembering this place from her childhood when they served only clotted porridge. Sergei responds defensively and says that she shouldn’t go looking for bad things: they can be found everywhere. Exposing the xenophobic feelings which have become a key aspect of social consensus in Putin’s Russia, he adds: “Look at the USA. Schoolchildren shooting each other! And in France there are only Arabs. What is good about that?” Similar xenophobic remarks about Paris are made later in the film by an ice cream saleswoman, representing the people’s point of view, who says to Anna: “I saw it on TV… Poor things. What a horrible life, I could not live like that.”

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Saturday, 24 October 2015

Vladimir Bortko: Master and Margarita - Мастер и Маргарита (2005) TV series

Direction and screenplay: Vladimir Bortko
Cast: Sergei Bezrukov, Vladislav Galkin, Aleksnadr Abdulov, Aleksandr Adabash'ian, Oleg Basilashvili, Aleksandr Bashirov, Roman Kartsev, Lev Borisov, Anna Koval'chuk, Nina Usatova

Valerii Todorovskii, one of the producers of Vladimir Bortko’s Master and Margarita for Russian television and himself a film director, said in a recent interview: “I cannot say that Master and Margarita is a symptom of some kind of spiritual renaissance in our society. It is just... that the time has come to adapt it for the screen.” The keyword here is “symptom” and any analysis of Bortko’s recent work will have to address it. Now that the enormous expectations generated by the serial’s premiere have faded and several underwhelmed critical voices have been heard in the mass media,[1] the time has come to view this work as an indicator of certain tendencies and—possibly—anxieties surrounding the emergent form of the telenovela in contemporary Russia.

Bortko’s decision to take on a leviathan of 20th century Russian literature was audacious, but not entirely unforeseeable. Before him, film directors (Andrzej Vajda, Aleksandar Petrovic, Iurii Kara) and numerous theater directors had attempted adaptations of the novel, all to various degrees of failure. Bulgakov’s devilish text not only overwhelmed those who tried to adapt it to the visual arts; it teased and bewitched them, and rumors of a demonic curse began to spread. Iurii Kara’s all-star film version (1994), for example, supposedly just disappeared.[2] But no superstitions or rumors could stop Bortko, forearmed with the success of the most popular adaptation of Bulgakov’s The Heart of a Dog (Sobach'e serdtse, 1988) and his recent TV series based on Dostoevskii’s The Idiot (2004).

Master and Margarita, paradoxically, combines the strong points of the two literary works that brought Bortko success. Like The Heart of a Dog, an unrivaled favorite of Russia’s reading public, Master and Margarita manages to combine high and popular cultures, to connect the two in a unique way and to interweave sublime philosophy and human drama with circus-like trickery, magic spectacle, and satire. A witty journalist by trade, Bulgakov made his cat Behemoth announce ironically that “Dostoevskii is immortal!” For Bulgakov, this was due not only to the tortured and whimsical subtlety of Dostoevskii’s style: Mikhail Afanas'evich inherited from Fedor Mikhailovich his penchant for deriding and breaking genre boundaries. As much as Dostoevskii drew his sublime constructions “out of the trash” of the urban mystery novels by Eugène Sue and Jules Gabriel Janin, Bortko’s The Idiot returned the novel to its roots (a project Boris Akunin has been carrying out in belles letters). Instead of a Bakhtinian novel of ideas, Russian audiences happily received a slum novel, a somewhat ennobled version of Bortko’s first TV triumph, the series Gangsters’ Petersburg (Banditskii Peterburg, 2000). Those who doubted the value of reducing The Idiot to melodramatic criminal plotlines were in the minority;[3] the serial received 7 Teffi awards and ratings were astronomical. Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita, with its irresistible love story, charming villains, and Molotov cocktail of the grotesque, satire, and popular history seemed a logical candidate to be Bortko’s next victory. But it did not happen. Why not?

Part of the answer lies in Bortko’s penchant for unlikely affinities: he attempted to create a popular television series without compromising the literary text too much. At the same time, he attempted to produce a serious film adaptation without a radical creative transformation of the text. The result was typical for such compromises: everyone was equally disappointed. Viewers looking for entertainment were bored, while those hoping for an adaptation of the sort perfected by Grigorii Kozintsev, Aleksandr Sokurov, or Pier Paolo Pasolini were not amused.

In many interviews during the filming, Bortko stressed his intention to treasure Bulgakov’s text, to change the minds of the somewhat embarrassed audience about his choice of actors, and to present a convincing vision of the magic spectacles of the book: the cat Behemoth, Margarita’s enchanted flight over Moscow, and Woland’s Ball of One Hundred Kings. It is reasonable to construct an analysis of the serial around these three promises.[4]

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Friday, 23 October 2015

Anna Melikyan: About Love - Про любовь (2015)

About Love (2015)

Director: Anna Melikyan
Writers: Anna Melikyan, Andrey Migachev
Stars: Aleksandra Bortich, Mariya Danilyuk, Mikhail Efremov

Awards :
First prize Open Russian Film Festival Kinotavr, Sochi (Russia), 2015
Jury Prize Open Russian Film Festival Kinotavr, Sochi (Russia), 2015

About Love (2015)

What is love? The heroes of the film try to answer this question. A series of the most different characters and their stories are woven together. Small stories about various things, all about love: a young pair who prefer to live through images of Japanese anime-heroes; a secretary who receives an obscene offer from her boss; a Japanese woman who arrives in Moscow in search of a Russian man; a graffiti artist in search of beauty; an ex-wife employed by her husband for an unusual task; and many other things...

Thursday, 15 October 2015

Timur Bekmambetov, Gennadii Kaiumov: Escape from Afghanistan aka The Peshawar Waltz - Пешаварский вальс (1994)

Directors: Timur Bekmambetov, Gennadii Kaiumov
Cast: Barry Kushner, Viktor Verzhbitskii, Aleksei Shemes, Gennadii Kaiumov, David Kheird, Michael Karpinski

Winner of countless Russian film awards, it portrays the real-life killing by Soviet helicopters in Afghanistan of a group of rebellious Soviet POWs who had freed themselves and begged the Soviet army to liberate them.

Escape from Afghanistan is a film twice unknown. Produced and directed in 1994 by Timur Bekmambetov and Gennadii Kaiumov, the film played at international film festivals under the title The Peshawar Waltz, but was never released into wide distribution in Russia. The film was then reedited, given a new voice and soundtrack, and released to video in 2002 as Escape from Afghanistan, which was well received by connoisseurs of gritty war films but went largely unnoticed by the wider public. One can extend this chain of forgetting in several directions: it was the directorial debut of a director now known exclusively for the blockbusters that came later in his career; it treats, in modified form, a historical event that has largely been written out of history; it recalls the ugly last years of an empire that is recalled today more in the forms of nightmares and fantasies than as history.

The film is loosely based on the so-called Badaber Uprising. During the Soviet military operation in Afghanistan, Pakistan and the United States, together with several other powers, operated a prisoner-of-war camp at the Badaber Fortress, located near Peshawar in Pakistan. In April, 1985, Soviet and Afghan prisoners at the fortress staged a revolt in which they seized weapons and occupied it. Unable to escape the fortress on their own, they entered into negotiations with local authorities in an attempt to obtain the protection of some international organization. These negotiations threatened to embarrass several powerful governments, all of which officially denied their military involvement in any Afghan civil war. The existence of the prisoners had become inconvenient and, as they were unwilling to surrender quietly, they had to be eliminated. Although the exact chain of events remains mysterious to this day, all inmates of the fortress were dead within two days of the start of their uprising.

In Bekmambetov’s 1994 version of the story, the burden of guilt is shifted decisively to the Soviet military forces, which launch an aerial attack on the fortress. The action of the film swirls around two westerners: a British documentary filmmaker and a French doctor treating victims of war under the auspices of Doctors Without Borders. These two visitors to the prison find themselves trapped where they certainly do not belong but where they nonetheless continue their work of recording and healing, respectively. They serve to structure the narrative of the film’s action while also remaining outside of it. Once the uprising begins, the film becomes exemplary of the war-film genre in which individual heroism and the struggle to survive is foregrounded against a fractious collective of soldiers who among themselves are also both victims and victimizers. While the film paints governments with a broad and negative brush, national stereotypes are eschewed in the film in favor of personal portraits. Whether English, French, Soviet, Afghan, or American, people are not marked by national color but by personal credos and fidelity to duty. Ultimately, the soldier’s duty to kill and the doctor’s Hippocratic Oath are equally validated and then rendered equally absurd as the action drives toward its tragic end.

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