Tuesday, 24 May 2016
Director: Andrey Kravchuk
Writers: Andrey Kravchuk, Andrey Rubanov
Stars: Anton Adasinsky, Aleksandr Armer, Vilen Babichev
Kievan Rus, late 10th century. After the death of his father, the young Viking prince Vladimir of Novgorod is forced into exile across the frozen sea.
Friday, 20 May 2016
Directors: Olga Stolpovskaya and Dmitry Troitsky
Stars: Damir Badmaev, Lyubov Tolkalina, Evgeniy Koryakovskiy
Olga Stolpovskaya and Dmitry Troitsky are both independent artists and film makers whose films have enriched the parallel cinema with new themes. Their latest film takes place in contemporary Moscow, in the world of young and hip people working in the media. Vera, a prototype of modern times, a beauty working as a TV news presenter, meets advertising executive Tim and begins a relationship with him. They lead quite an ordinary life, until the day that Tim hits the handsome and wild Uloomji with his car and takes him home for some first aid. Before long, a strange, bisexual love triangle begins, and on the day of their first anniversary, Vera finds Tim in bed with Uloomji. The roots and traditions of the Kalmyk Uloomji (Kalmykia is an autonomous Russian Republic and the only European Buddhist nation) are reasons for additional troubles. His peasant family cannot accept the fact that he is gay and things seem to spin out of control for all of them. Though made in the traditions of the parallel cinema, the film stays a pleasant romantic comedy with a happy end. The style is young, slick and cool, the film language attractive and recognisable for a young audience.
You I Love is the official English title of this film, which in Russian is called simply I Love You. It is not clear what the authors meant to express with the transformation of the simple declarative statement of the Russian to the convoluted and ambiguous English version. This strange combination of simplicity and complexity is emblematic for the film as a whole. It has been billed as Russia’s first real example of gay cinema, but the sexual orientation per se of the characters receives relatively little attention or analysis in the course of the action. It is almost lost within a mixture of the most various themes, ideas, images, jokes, and textual and visual references that threaten to disrupt any artistic or ideological unity in the film. This is a film that ultimately doesn’t seem to know what or for whom its message really is.
The three main characters are introduced at the beginning of the film, two of them first as disembodied and anonymous voices. As the young Uloomji, an undocumented resident from the periphery of the former Soviet empire, seeks work in Moscow, we hear Timofei―the creator of television advertising campaigns―doing market research by telephone and Vera―a well-known television news caster―reporting on the growing problem of undocumented workers in the capital. While Uloomji tries to find his place in a city that does not welcome him, the viewer has an equally difficult time placing the mechanically mediated voices speaking from beyond the screen. This introduction sets up the configuration not only of the cast of characters, but also to a large extent of the larger social environment that will structure the drama to come.
Vera and Timofei soon meet and begin a relationship. One of the most striking aspects of the film is the way it aesthetically captures the lifestyle of the young cosmopolitan generation of yuppie-like denizens of a no longer post-Soviet Moscow. The glossy surface and the empty content of modern life is communicated in a relatively small set of dramatic sequences. Vera and Timofei live in a world that is completely constructed by the mass media, which they themselves produce and in which they work. This is underscored not only through a recurring series of ads marketing a western-style soft drink as the fulfillment of all human aspiration, but also in the self-conscious way film itself repeatedly frames its characters as if they are speaking lines in one of Timofei’s video clips.
In this way, You I Love is one of the most striking examples of a film that actually grapples with the new reality of 21st century urban Russia, at least with its cash-drenched new elite. Yet the film is frustratingly coy in its evaluation of this new reality. Technology and urban life give individual identity a kind of amorphous character that has never before been conceivable in Russia’s history. This fluidity of identity is neither celebrated nor mourned, but rather put on display in a way that is half play and half manipulation. Timofei’s supposed discovery of his bisexuality and his developing relationship with both Vera and Uloomji are perceived, on the one hand, as a kind of personal liberation to be sure, but he repeatedly shows himself incapable, on the other hand, of stepping out of the prison house of media images that condition the role-play through which he experiences real life. Vera, too, is at once both a true celebrity in her role as TV newscaster and a prisoner of a system that turns her physical body into a battlefield in the war for ratings.
The film’s narrative voice is likewise diffuse and indeterminate. At several points in the film, Vera’s off-screen voice weaves itself into the action to describe her feelings and small epiphanies. At times we seem to be hearing the story of Vera’s path to a kind of Buddhist enlightenment, a developing ability to see beyond the limitations of the material and social world in which humanity tries to exist. But this narrative voice is not sustained, nor is Vera the focal point for the larger storyline. For much of the action, Vera is pushed far to the sidelines and left to observe the developing relationship of the two men. But on an extradiagetic level, Vera’s subject position continues to organize the film’s point of view, even when her voice does not narrate. As she struggles to understand what is happening with the man she loves, she seems to join the viewers at a place where the inner content of Timofei’s psyche remains completely inaccessible. While we see brief manifestations of strong emotional trauma, Timofei remains very much a cipher, a person with no defined history who keeps his authentic personality tightly locked so deep in the closet that it has become inaccessible even to him. He remains a mystery to us even more: just how novel were his feelings of attraction for Uloomji? to what extent is his bisexuality a new discovery? how long was he in the West and what traces of that experience remain with him after his return to Moscow? what kind of unspoken signals pass between him and his boss in their workplace interactions? The viewer is shut out in the same way that Vera feels herself shut out as she asks helplessly “What is going on here?” Neither she nor we ever get a final answer to this question.
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Ivan’s Childhood is a double gateway into filmic pastures of unimaginable richness. It is the most accessible introduction to the work of Russian film-maker Andrei Tarkovsky, whose sprawling 70s masterpieces Mirror and Stalker it prefigures in its audacious imagery and elliptical narrative technique. There’s his catalogue of images: moving water reflecting the sky, silver birch forests, cast-iron bells, religious icons, horses, apples, mud, war; the fluid, serpentine camera movements of impressive duration and sensuality; and the prodigally poetic method of storytelling, with unsignposted dream sequences and flashbacks. It stands among the greatest directorial debuts ever made.
Ivan is 12, parentless, alone in the war zone along the river Dnieper, drifting between partisan bands and regular Red Army units, offering himself as a scout. He is seeking vengeance against the Nazis who killed his family. But he is still a child and Tarkovsky never loses sight of the disjunction between the boy and the world: it is here that he finds his poetry, in childlike wonder set against horror and deprivation.
Ivan’s Childhood is also a door to one of the most fascinating backwaters of world cinema: Soviet cinema during the late 50s to mid-60s. Soviet film-makers – in Moscow and in the satellite states – seized a new kind of formal freedom. Thus Russia was suddenly making realist war movies such as The Cranes Are Flying and Ballad Of A Soldier, and not-so-realist ones like Ivan and Larisa Shepitko’s 1966 debut Wings.
After Ivan’s Childhood, the Georgian-Armenian director Sergei Parajanov was inspired to break with officially sanctioned Soviet realism and make his revolutionary tone poem Shadows Of Forgotten Ancestors. In Poland, Andrzej Wajda and his protege Roman Polanski forged new paths, both dissident and surrealistic, while in Hungary, Miklós Jancsó’s My Way Home and The Round-Up embraced all things fluid and painterly. The Czech film-makers had such a good time of it that the Russians marched in and crushed them along with Dubček.
Here ended The Thaw. After the ascent of Brezhnev, all these film-makers would suffer severe problems with authorities over their next movies: Tarkovsky on Andrei Rublev, Parajanov for The Colour Of Pomegranates, Shepitko with You And I, and Wajda with pretty much everything. Polanski’s second feature was made in exile, where most of the Czechs joined him after 1968, and Tarkovsky 10 years later. But for a short, ecstatic decade, Soviet film-making set the pace for the rest of the world. Avail yourself of it.
Monday, 16 May 2016
Director: Kirill Serebrennikov
Cast: Petr Skvortsov, Aleksandr Gorchilin, Aleksandra Revenko, Victoria Isakova, Julia Aug, Svetlana Bragarnik, Anton Vasiliev, Irina Rudnitskaya
Adapted from German dramatist Marius von Mayenburg’s recent play Martyr, The Student (Uchenik) represents a qualitative leap forward for Kirill Serebrennikov.
The writer-director is best known outside Russia for his 2012 Venice competition entrant Betrayal, a glacially beautiful but markedly inscrutable drama that failed to travel far beyond the festival circuit. Offshore distributors and acquisitions people are likely to look a little more favorably on The Student, which offers both a universally relevant examination of religious zealotry and, at the same time, a damning, satirical look at modern Russia, a country whose major institutions have become increasingly dominated and cowed by medieval-minded reactionaries and bigots.
Although it’s not quite in the same majestic league as compatriot Andrey Zvyagintsev’s Leviathan, which played in Cannes’ competition two years ago, this Un Certain Regard entry still nobly flies an anti-clerical flag, while also providing a taut, combustible drama.
From the start, 47-year-old Russian Serebrennikov has not been one to shy away from controversy. His first major stage production in Moscow in the early 2000s was Vassily Sigarev’s Plasticine, in which an alienated teenage boy is gang raped, a particularly shocking subject for the conservative world of Russian theater. Since then, the prolific Serebrennikov has switched back and forth between the stage, TV and film, building up an eclectic list of productions ranging from the Presnyakov Brothers’ social satire Playing the Victim (both the original theater version and the film adaptation), the deeply evocative film Yuri’s Day, and boldly adapted classics by the likes of Maxim Gorky, Bertolt Brecht and Mikhail Bulgakov on stage, and Anton Chekhov for film and TV (Ragin, among others).
As varied as that resume looks, it’s possible to see recurrent themes and interests: madness, twisted sexual desire, state repression, fractured families with a special emphasis on the implosive relationship between mothers and sons. All of that comes neatly together The Student, for which Serebrennikov takes the screenplay credit even while acknowledging its basis in von Mayenburg’s original. (Serebrennikov previously adapted the play for his theater company in Moscow, and some of the actors here performed in the original production.)
The narrative starts out in the realm of unfussy realism and grows blacker, richer and more surreal. For reasons that remain until the end teasingly unexplained, high-school student Veniamin (Petr Skvortsov, well cast with a crazed believer’s shining eyes and low brow) has developed an addictive relationship with the Holy Scriptures, obsessively reading and re-reading the Bible, which he interprets with a fundamentalist literalness.
As if to prove that he’s not making any of this up, Serebrennikov “footnotes” every Biblical quotation Veniamin spouts with onscreen text citing (in Roman script) each quote’s book, chapter and verse. The references range across both the Old and New Testaments, but Veniamin shows a particular preference for Luke and later on, that exhaustive compendium of dos and don’ts, Leviticus. And so his holy war starts with his refusal to undress for swimming lesson. His mother (Julia Aug, a fine study in maternal exhaustion) at first wonders if he’s embarrassed about involuntary erections, and then worries he’s on drugs. But Veniamin is high on Jesus, or what the Communists called only a generation ago, the opiate of the people.
Times have indeed changed. Instead of putting the youth in psychiatric care like they would back in the good old days of the Soviet Union, the school authorities acquiesce to his hectoring and start changing school policy, insisting that the girls must wear one-piece swimsuits instead of bikinis, and entertaining the idea that creationism should be taught alongside the theory of evolution in biology class. Only school science teacher Elena Lvovna (Victoria Isakova, The Island) objects to this theological bullying, but in order to arm herself with logical arguments she herself starts to disappear down a rabbit hole of compulsive Biblical research and mounting hysteria and fear.
The film makes it clear Elena has every reason to be scared as Veniamin’s venom turns nastier, calling up Biblical quotes to buttress anti-Semitism and homophobia. Serebrennikov’s adaptation has beefed up the role of the local cleric, Father Vselod (Nikolai Roshin), turning him from a Catholic into an Orthodox priest seemingly on staff at the school who’s initially supportive of Venya’s embrace of religion, as long as he can control the theological interpretation. There’s no missing the critique here of how much the Orthodox Church now permeates every institution in Russia.
Lest the narrative turn into an overly didactic compare-and-contrast of ideologies, the screenplay adeptly adds drama via subplots involving Venya’s attraction to a pretty fellow (Aleksandra Revenko) and another fellow student, Grigoriy, (Aleksandr Gorchilin, who played Veniamin on stage), with a physical handicap who is attracted to Venya. Serebrennikov says in the press notes, perhaps a little disingenuously, that his preference for long takes results from laziness, in the sense that he’d prefer to rehearse the actors enough that one shot instead of several gets everything he needs. The fact that Serebrennikov recently mounted a stage adaption of Lars Von Trier’s Dogme 95 film The Idiots would suggest the long-take strategy has more to do with aesthetics and realism rather than expediency. Either way, his cast of experienced players repay him with line-perfect readings and high-energy performances that evoke, in a good way, the stage origins of the material.
Likewise, DoP Vladislav Opelyants’s lighting throws up stagey pools of illumination in some interiors, but the handheld operation dances gracefully with the performers, especially when the arguments reach fever pitch. The use of Kaliningrad on the Baltic coast as a location allows the production to make use of the bizarre broken concrete defensive fortifications on the shore, suggestive of the collapsed remains of a lost empire, which in a way they are. Ilya Demutsky’s orchestral score adds a certain Romantic-influenced tragic, heft. (Serebrennikov had to abandon a biopic of Tchaikovsky because the funding bodies allegedly didn’t want him show the subject was gay). The score forms a fine contrast with the song over the closing credits, the deliciously stupid and tautologously titled “God Is God” by Slovenian metal rockers Laibach.
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Kirill Serebrennikov's study of a problem teenager's religious awakening is as aesthetically kinetic as it is intellectually rigorous.
There was a time when scores of defiant adolescents asserted intellectual independence from their parents by turning their backs on religion. In this more agnostic age, picking up the Bible can be just as startling an act of rebellion in many households. So it proves in Kirill Serebrennikov’s splendid “The Student,” a stormy, swoon-inducingly shot bout of Russian moral wrestling that hits as hard and as heavily as a nastoyka hangover. Though Serebrennikov clearly takes a side in this rhetorical battle between an aggressively Christianized high-schooler and his liberal, Jewish-born biology teacher, this is a welcome study of religious fanaticism that doesn’t discredit either party’s intelligence, and knows its oats either way: Viewers who are either unfamiliar with or estranged from the Good Book should prepare themselves for a veritable tsunami of scripture, rigorously extracted and reassembled as riveting spiritual debate.
If that sounds a tough sell, it probably is: The fevered verbal tone and vertiginous formal activity of Serebrennikov’s films gives them narrower international appeal than, say, those of his compatriot Andrey Zvyagintsev, though they’re comparable in heft and gravity. Still, there’s an of-the-moment urgency to “The Student’s” unexpected generational face-off that should draw broader arthouse interest than Serebrennikov’s 2012 Venice competition entry “Betrayal” — a heated, dazzlingly mounted romantic tragedy that sadly never caught fire beyond the festival circuit. At a time when arguments over educational “safe spaces” and belief-based “micro-aggressions” are prominent in the media, this wildly escalating classroom drama — based on a stage work by German playwright Marius von Mayenburg — serves as a frightening cautionary tale. Whether it ultimately comes down for or against unqualified free speech, however, is one of many potential topics of post-screening conversation.
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