Montreal World Film Festival 1996

logo By F. Kreisel; September 1996


The recently concluded Montreal World Film Festival is one of the better known venues of the cinema world. It attempts to promote a wide range of filmmakers from many countries by requiring as little as possible in promotion expenditures. This year the Festival organizers paid special attention to current Russian films and even gave a special prize in the category of the Russian Cinema of Today. This writer was able to view a number of the more significant films presented at the Festival. Preceding my impressions I have included the official descriptions provided by the Festival organizers.


Gone With the Horses -- Nesut menia koni.

Publicity release

Director: Vladimir Motyl. Script: Vladimir Motyl. Photography: Nikolai Nemoliaiev, Alexander Negriuk. Editor: N. Alferova. Music: Isaak Shwartz. Sound: J. Fetisov. Cast: Andrei Sokolov, Agnieszka Wagner, Sergei Vinogradov, Gennady Pechnikov, Vladimir Kachan, Valentina Kosobutskaia. Producer: Boris Greenberg, Arion-Studio.

A modern romantic melodrama filled with mad passions and the vagaries of fate. Although the film is inspired by the stories of Anton Chekhov it is by no means any sort of "adaptation". The film's action takes place today and offers an ironic comment on the selfishness and intolerance of contemporary society.


Iskra Research; by F. Kreisel
The name of this movie is taken from a well known song by Vladimir Vysotsky in which the balladeer sings of the inexorable fate and the nearness of doom. This is a story of a young post-Soviet rascal. A Russian patriot of the fascist type, Ivan did not quite succeed in catching the gravy train, a seat on which his father's high post in Soviet society should have assured him. Now, he is studying to be a lawyer, using his healthy good looks to win beautiful women, earning his diploma not through diligent study of the quickly changing laws but by performing stud services for an ugly female professor in return for course notes and examination help. He sees the beautiful Nina (Agnieszka Wagner) driving in her husband's foreign car from the airport, is smitten by LOVE (lust, we and his closest friend, biologist Eisler, think), and follows her, cynically noting to his friend that he can seduce any wife right in front of her husband.

The story now gets interesting. We are given an insight into the mentality of a new type of "interdevochka", one who is kept not by a foreign but by the new Russian businessman, and who consoles herself with artistic and literary pursuits. These literary ideals take over her imagination. Although attracted to Ivan by his animal magnetism, Nina (Wagner) must justify to herself her betrayal of her husband by sacrificing herself on the altar of love. She admits the affair to her businessman husband (after he discovers her liaison), and leaves him to give herself to Ivan.

Ivan does not want her at first: he is busy with exams, he has his stud duties with the woman lawyer, etc. But Nina's dowry of a brand new Opel limousine, generously given to her by her former husband, win the day for true "love" Moscow style. She divorces the businessman and the young couple marry.

The story develops some months later in the Crimea where the young couple have moved after Ivan received his law diploma. Nina has made more sacrifices: she underwent a post-term abortion at Ivan's demand, and the abortion left her physically ill and morally anguished; her career in literature is going nowhere, Ivan has no interest in or knowledge of poetry, and has even lost his sexual interest in her. Yet she clings to Ivan all the more, despite his lies, drunkenness and recent sexual frigidity.

The glimpses of social and economic conflicts in the Crimea were of particular interest to me. The director showed us the antagonism between the emerging capitalist farmers and the feudal regime of the old collective farm. We are also given a hint of the Russian-Ukrainian conflict on the peninsula in that the police prefer to be bribed with Russian rubles rather than the worthless Ukrainian karbovantsy. Of course, the US dollar is much preferred by everyone.

The story reaches its dramatic peak with a duel between the honest and high-minded Eisler and Ivan, with Eisler defending Nina's honor against Ivan's boorish drunkenness, selfishness and lies. A minor wound received by Ivan and Nina's continuing selfless devotion to him shock this scoundrel away from the precipice into which the fate was driving him.

The director introduced this film before the screening and explained to the audience that he wanted to reaffirm the timeless human values and to show "the path of a repenting sinner back to God". In the movie we are indeed offered numerous views of an Orthodox church atop a hill. It is unclear, however, in what way this God affected the agnostic cynic Ivan, or the self abusive Nina, or the atheist Eisler.


The Road To The End Of The World

Publicity release

Director: Ruben Muradian. Script: Gennady Bokarev, Ruben Muradian. Photography: Boris Shapiro. Editor: Lidia Volokhova. Music: Vladimir Rubashevsky. Sound: Larisa Shutova. Cast: Zarif Bapinaiev, Barasbim Mulaiev, Natalia Fateieva, Boris Kuliev, Zarema Bechelova, Alexander Pashutin, Bagrat Khachatrian, Viktor Proskurin. Producer: Ruben Muradian, Antik-100.

The "Great Patriotic War" (World War II) was beginning to draw to a close. But Stalin's repressive government agencies were still working at full capacity and the plan for the mass deportation of the native inhabitants of the Northern Caucasus was put into effect. March 8, 1944 became a black day in the history of these people. The film tells their pathetic story.


Iskra Research; by F. Kreisel

The Second World War exposed the social, economic and national contradictions within the Soviet Union. The great conquests of the October Revolution: central planning, industrialization, cultural progress of masses of people gave the Soviet state great advantages in the military sphere by comparison with the preceding tsarist regime and assured its final victory over fascism. Yet the bureaucratic police state of Stalin undermined many of these gains and contributed to the initial victories of the Nazi invaders: the policy of forced collectivization and artificial famine of 1932 alienated the peasantry, especially in Ukraine, its economic zigzags slowed industrial development, its police repression during the Great Purges destroyed the fighting capacity of the Red Army, its eclectic blindness allowed Hitler the element of surprise.

Towards the end of the war the regime had to forestall any movement among the masses of people towards greater democracy. For the Stalinist bureaucracy, its policy of self preservation meant that the anger of the Russian people at the great unnecessary losses had to be channeled into Great Russian chauvinism, that the Soviet nationalities were to be pitted against one another and the rigid police state of 1930's reestablished. Over the next ten years we witness the harsh genocidal policies of exiling and exterminating whole nationalities, relocation of peoples, anti-cultural crusades of Zhdanov and the anti-Semitic campaign culminating with the extermination of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee and the Doctors' Plot.

In 1941 Stalin disbanded the German Autonomous Region on the Volga. In early 1944 the Stalinist regime attacked the following nationalities: the Chechen, the Ingush, the Karachay, the Balkar, the Kalmyks, the Crimean Tartars.

This movie was introduced by its director Ruben Muradian as a documentary story, telling the tragic events of March 1944 when the 40,000 members of the Balkar nation were picked up by the force of 20,000 NKVD troops and driven thousands of miles to Siberia.

Muradian does succeed in explaining that Stalin's policy was completely irrational even from the point of view of nation building and state security. The NKVD collected all persons of the Balkar nationality, even the Party and Komsomol members, even the soldiers and officers of the Red Army and their families, including Stalin's own henchmen in the local hierarchy. They were all moved to the Siberian wilderness and great many of them died en route or from the privations of the initial settlement period.

Unfortunately, Muradian's method of story telling turns this historic tragedy into something of a melodrama. He pads the movie with much scenic imagery (probably to save money). His use of documentary materials is primitive: his long repetitious sequences of moving locomotives and trains do not add much to our understanding of events. On the other hand, he uses actors for all the action scenes, contemporary people instead of photos of the real victims, imagined story instead of the grim tales of 1944. He shows us a dying Red Army soldier and his fiancee, and turns the crying girl's face towards the camera milking us for emotions. He shows an elderly woman dying of a heart attack as the NKVD bastard pushes her down. He shows a loyal Stalinist committing suicide, a Red Army hero chasing the trains across the country, and so on. Such things happened, to be sure, but this reviewer does not like the movie directors who use these hackneyed cliches to jerk tears out of the viewer.

As interesting as the movie is the tale of its screening around the world and in Russia itself. The Russian government film agency Roskomkino normally provides the seed money, the permits for studio use and other facilities to film a movie. Muradian's movie was duly filmed, a copy sent to Roskomkino, one reel was sent to the festivals around the world and that is all. This picture was not screened in Russia at all, and the director does not know of any plans to do so.

This writer suggests that this movie was produced solely as a showpiece at the festivals like the Montreal venue to provide the public opinion in the West with a proof of the liberal and democratic intentions of the current Russian regime. True, Yeltsin and his generals did bomb Chechnia into the Stone Age, kill some thirty thousand and send hundreds of thousands more to squatter camps in the neighboring regions. But, the IMF and the World Bank can assure the gullible public that some of the money they sent to Russia was spent on filming this humanitarian drama, and this proves that Yeltsin's heart is in the right place.

How do you, my reader, like to be taken for a fool?


Return Of The Battleship

Publicity release

Director: Gennady Poloka. Script: Vladimir Bragin, Gennady Poloka. Based on the novel "Return of the Battleship" by A. Kapler. Photography: Yevgeny Davidov. Editors: E. Guralskai, T. Maliavina. Music: Veniamin Basner. Sound: G. Kravetsky, A. Koniaiev. Cast: Mikhail Urzhumtsev, Liudmila Potapova, Yelena Maiorova, Vladimir Sterzhakov, Tatiana Vasilieva, Armen Dzhigarkhanian, Ivan Bortnik, Vasily Mischenko, Ernst Romanov, Valery Nosik, Boris Novikov, Boris Brunov, Igor Kvasha, Alexei Buldakov. Producer: Mikhail Zusmanovich, Gennady Poloka, Ritm Studios.

Dashing German cavalry officer Johann Frantsevich Hertz loved the Revolution and fought to defend it in wartime -- against the "White Russians" -- and in peace -- against the NEP, against prostitution, against anybody and anything that he thought a threat to its success. Then he fell in love with Klavdiia and he threw himself into his affair with her with the same passion as he had previously shown for revolution. But many things emerged to prevent their happiness: Hertz' fictitious wife, the secretary of the Odessa communist party, a bag of fried sunflower seeds, and an Eisenstein unknown to the inhabitants of Odessa.


Iskra Research; by F. Kreisel

This movie was for me one of the highlights of the Festival. From the first moment it appeals to the viewer with its boisterous visual love of Odessa, one of the architectural and cultural jewels of the Black Sea coast. I am not an Odessit, but have visited the city as a child, and shall forever remember the loud humor of its inhabitants, the intricate funny patois of its language which mixes Russian, Ukrainian, Yiddish, Romanian and a few other languages, the white acacia trees on the wide boulevards, ice cream parlors, the historic steps, the busy port and markets. There are other lovely port cities in this world, Marseilles and San Francisco come to mind when seeing the panorama of Odessa.

It is a lovely feeling to watch the city scenes in this movie. It is one of the few current Russian movies to show us real street scenes, crowds, street cars full of passengers, shops, a beach crowded with bathers.

The story itself centers on a German, Johann Hertz, who had read Bakunin and Nietzsche at the Goettingen University, but turned to Karl Marx for a true explanation of capitalist society, and in the crucible of World War I and the Russian Revolution has come to the aid of the young Soviet republic. Hertz joined the Communist party in 1918 and had served in Primakov's Ukrainian cavalry corps, was badly wounded in the Civil War, and has now been demobilized and sent to recuperate in Odessa's mild climate.

The year is 1925, Lenin had died a year before, the New Economic Policy is in full swing and that social inequality, against which Hertz has been fighting since 1918, is blooming once again in the new Russia. Hertz from the first is portrayed as an oddball. He wears a cavalry uniform with blue cross chevrons and a blue star on his hat, not the normal red star and chevrons. He does not drink, curse, stuff himself, abuse women or come late to the office. His prized possession are his books.

The boorish Odessa regional Party secretary appoints Hertz to head the local artists' employment bureau despite Hertz' protestations that he knows nothing of art. From this vantage point we are treated to a comic view of the entertainment industry in the city, a kaleidoscope of opera baritones, circus performers, cinema has beens, burlesque dancers, magicians, and so on. Hertz' efforts to bring some order to this chaos of bribe taking, fake ration cards and IDs, pseudo-cultural and pseudo-proletarian pseudo-art are futile but funny.

In the first half of this film we see nothing of the new truly revolutionary and liberating art. Hertz seems overwhelmed by the hacks left over from the bon monde of pre-revolutionary Odessa. Meanwhile he is hustled into a fake marriage with a local floozy, whom he tries to educate in Marxism, and falls into a true love at first sight with beautiful and kind Klavdiia, a single mother of two girls.

Then Odessa is visited by the team of Moscow film makers under the direction of Sergei Eisenstein who is here to make a movie of the famous 1905 mutiny on the battleship Potemkin. We are now in for a fabulous treat. We get to see the making of this world shaking movie, we hear Eisenstein's method explained, we see how the cast were recruited, the stages set up, the hundreds of unprofessional extras instructed in their roles, how the structure of this film emerges from the scaffolding of this ant-like activity.

Hertz' single minded and narrow barrack-style communism prevents him from realizing the revolutionary creativity of Eisenstein's methods and he tilts at windmills (literally) trying to prevent the filming of the famous Odessa Steps scene of the movie. Fortunately for us he does not succeed. Neither does Hertz succeed in liberating himself from the straitjacket of official rules and directives of his office and the Party secretary. Although Klavdiia did get a part in the filming of "The Battleship" (she plays the part of a Jewish mother of a little boy killed on the Odessa steps by the Cossacks), she is soon unemployed again. Klavdiia is forced to sell sunflowers seeds on the street to feed her family, is caught by the militia, brought into Hertz' office and he cancels her actor's employment card, her proof of legitimacy. The new Soviet bureaucracy swallows Hertz and destroys his chance for happiness. Klavdiia's curse shatters Hertz' inner fortitude.

Then the finished movie "Battleship Potemkin" comes to town. The director, Gennady Poloka, correctly presents the magnificently ennobling effect of this masterpiece on the town's population. People are excited by the movie, both about the actual revolutionary events of 20 years ago, about their own roles in the Revolution and in the filming of the movie.

Hertz, however, has now become completely unhinged. Seeing Klavdiia in her dramatic role of the desolate mother on the Odessa steps brings to him his own action in letting down the only woman he ever loved, and who loved him. Hertz sees her life and death on the screen time after time. His own life is over, he lives only on the screen. We see him much later, a lunatic dressed in the old army rags, still coming to see "The Battleship" in a deserted theater.

The scenes from the movie "The Battleship" are one of the strong and uplifting notes in this wonderful film. They give evidence that the October Revolution did not spring from a secretive and conspiratorial coup by a tiny group of disciplined and ruthless Bolsheviks but was a rising of the whole Russian nation. The presentation of Communist Party life in 1925 as a series of orchestrated meetings full of illiterate sloganeering by boorish louts in high positions is an ahistorical projection of the later Stalinist period backwards. This is a common view in Russia and is fostered both by the past Stalinist lies and the present anti communist propaganda.

Fortunately, we have other evidence. The memoirs of Baitalsky ("Notebooks For Grandchildren"), a young Odessa communist of that period who was later jailed for Oppositional activity and spent decades in the GULag, tell us of mass literary, artistic, theatrical, musical activities among the young Communists and the spirit of self sacrifice, egalitarianism and freedom which prevailed in their midst. The bureaucratic regimentation did come later, but it came as a result of the planned persecution of idealistic and devoted Communists of the Hertz type, their gradual hounding out of the Party and their replacement with careerists and lackeys.

The period beginning with Lenin's illness and death witnessed a transformation of the Bolshevik party. In Ukraine, the leader of Communist party during the Civil War, Khristian Rakovsky, supported Trotsky in the 1923 party debate and was recalled from his post. Some leaders underwent moral and political degeneration, e.g. Stalin and Bukharin. Other leaders of the heroic period were gradually supplanted by pragmatic apparatus men, for example Trotsky and Zinoviev were replaced by Voroshilov and Molotov. Along with the organized opposition activity there were a number of suicides out of despair or in protest, yet such suicides occurred more frequently after the possibility for legal opposition was exhausted. In Ukraine, one of the leading party organizers, Yevgeniia Bosh, one of the signatories of the Platform of the 46, committed suicide in 1924. The leading Soviet diplomat and a long time supporter of Trotsky, Adolf Joffe, took his life in protest at Trotsky's expulsion from the party in 1927.

The director intentionally and incorrectly paints Hertz as a lonely Don Quixote, and Hertz' ideal of a world commune as an impossible dream. Similarly, of all the heroes of communism, only Marx is shown on posters and placards in the movie; other towering figures of the communist world: Engels, Luxembourg, Lenin and Trotsky are not even mentioned. Hertz is presented as the only true communist, yet Odessa was one of the centers of oppositional activity at that time. Such a picture of a lone individual against an indifferent world is belied by the movie itself. Some of the most powerful sequences in this movie occur when the Odessa audiences see themselves in the movie reenacting the heroic events of the 1905 Revolution. These moments offer us a hint of that spirit of heroic self sacrifice when masses of people throughout Russia were animated by Hertz' dream of world communism. It was this dream which moved millions of working people in 1917, and which today is still the only hope for mankind.


Baryshnia-Krestianka

Publicity release

Director: Alexei Sakharov. Script: A. Zhitinsky, Alexei Zakharov. Based on the short story by A. S. Pushkin. Photography: N. Nemoliaiev. Editor: L. Shmigliakova. Music: Vladimir Komarov. Sound: I. Urvantsev. Cast: E. Korikova, E. Rednikova, D. Scherbina, L. Kuravliov, V. Lanovoi. Producer and Sales: L. Poliarskaia, Ritm Film Studio of Mosfilm Association.

Liza had her eye on her handsome young neighbor Alexei, for some time and he has had his eye on her. But their fathers, feuding landowners, clearly aren't about to let the two young people get together. Liza has an idea. With the help of a maidservant, Nastia, she dresses up as a young peasant girl and wanders into the forest ostensibly to gather mushrooms. As she planned, Alexei spots her and the peasant disguise doesn't fool him a bit.


Iskra Research; by F. Kreisel
This movie celebrates pastoral Russia of a century and a half ago. It presents an unchanging society, frozen into a traditional patriarchal culture (or lack thereof), with both the landlords and the peasants, both men and women unquestioningly following their paths through life.

The story is not original, it is a watered down, conformist version of Romeo and Juliette. Two neighboring landlords conduct a feud which their offspring must follow. The young man is fresh from a Dutch university, but the education was wasted on him since he just wants to join the Hussars. The young girl is dreaming of romance with a tall, dark man with a large mustache, but knows that her father will decide on a husband. The foreign words employed by the gentry, their Western dress, tastes in poetry and music are just a thin veneer, barely concealing the basic idiocy of country life. Here is one example of the

Pushkin satirizes the basic uselessness of the landed gentry when he quotes one of them lauding the other for discovering how to mortgage their estates on the London market. The movie director reenacts this scene in the movie but then celebrates this idiocy by extolling the fathers' taste for homemade vodkas and liqueurs.

This is a low budget escapist film, and the viewer is advised to read Pushkin instead.


Yekhai!

Publicity release

Director: Georgy Shengelia. Script: Alexei Timm. Based on the play "Yekhai!" by Nina Sadur. Photography: Ilia Diomin. Editor: Edward Gimpel. Music: Roman Zagorodniuk. Sound: Yuliia Yegorova. Cast: Vladimir Il'yin, Tatiana Kravchenko, Larisa Shakhvorostova. Producer: Konstantin Slobodchikov, Roman Burimov, Oldmore Image.

One long winter evening, Piotr Gavrilin, a rural bulldozer operator, suffers a fit of depression. He feels that his life is senseless. He has a good wife, some savings for his retirement and his children are all grown up and living on their own. But one thing appears to have gone missing from his life: love. For other people this may just seem like the onset of middle age: for Piotr it is a full-blown crisis. His wife won't give him any money for drink, his boss doesn't appreciate him and among his old friends only the goat has remained faithful. The only way out for Piotr seems suicide. He lays down on the railway track and waits for the next train. But fate would have it that the locomotive is driven by a former actor from the local drama group and he manages to stop the train in time. Act Two is about to begin.


Iskra Research; by F. Kreisel
This movie was the gem of this Festival. It was funny, sad, wise, insightful. Gavrilin, played by Il'in, lost more than love, he lost a sense of purpose. Yes, his wife is very different from the thin, shy adorable girl he married. She snores in bed, watches Mexican soaps and only seems to care about money, and more money. But it is his whole neighborhood, his village and his country which have changed drastically, and for the worse. He walks out of the house onto the evening street after a quarrel with his wife, and realizes that he is completely alone, except for his pet goat. All his neighbors have their TVs on and are watching some idiotic foreign (or foreign inspired) shows. His workmates release themselves through weekend drunken binges. The former factory head, who has now become the president of the production association in which Gavrilin holds a share, is screwing the workers out of their stock in the enterprise while at the same time he is also screwing his private secretary right there in the office (this scene is reminiscent of the hilarious portrayal of the state governor, played by Mel Brooks, in the movie "Blazing Saddles").

The acting by Il'in is superb, he has a fantastic screen presence. When in the middle of the night he pulls out an old photo of his wife and tries to find with a magnifying glass the lost beauty on the face of the snoring woman lying in bed next to him, we feel the full weight of years and bad experiences which had stunted her personality, just as they ravaged her body. When his wife's TV turns out to be more important than their relationship, Gavrilin hacks up the Sony with an axe. When life loses meaning, Gavrilin decides that it will take a whole train to separate his head from his body, lesser methods of suicide won't do.

The driver of the oncoming train is also a real character. He was formerly an actor in a workers' club and has a real love for the theater, for words and their effect on a person. He turns to Goethe's "Faust" to find a way to convince Gavrilin that life has its own reason, that knowledge, even knowledge of one's frailties and mortality, is precious. To see these workers' hunger for reason, for truth, their appreciation of Goethe's poetry is truly optimistic. When the bulldozer driver and the train driver discuss their lives and loves we see ourselves in them, we too search for happiness.

This adventure ends when a woman track inspector finds the stopped train and takes the fellow philosophers to her house for dinner. Gavrilin's wife and goat also turn up in the end.

The director, alas, finds happiness in a retreat from society, in a turn of a lonely woman track inspector to God. Religion has for many Russians become their last desperate hope. What a pessimistic outlook this is.


Inspector General -- Revizor

Publicity release

Director: Sergei Gazarov. Script: Sergei Gazarov, Andrei Dmitriiev. Based on the play "Revizor" by Nikolai Gogol. Photography: Mikhail Agranovich. Editor: Irakly Kvirikadze, Galina Patrikeieva. Music: Alexander Eisenshtadt. Sound: Alexander Khasin, Irzhi Gora. Cast: Nikita Mikhalkov, Oleg Yankovsky, Yevgeny Mironov, Anna Mikhalkova, Marina Neiolova, Zinovy Gerdt, Armen Dzhigarkhanian. Producer: Sergei Gazarov, Nikita & Piotr Film Company, Most Group.

In a small, provincial Russian town in the middle of the 19th century, Ivan Khlestakov, a young rake from St. Petersburg, and his valet Osip stop and put up at the local inn. Khlestakov has lost all his money gambling and has nothing left to pay for travel or accommodations. Still, he demands to be served. As it happens, the local governor had been waiting for a visit by an inspector from the capital and rumors are that the official will be traveling incognito. The local government is thoroughly corrupt and, terrified of being found out, they imagine that it is Khlestakov who has come to conduct the inspection. The governor invites the young man to his house and gives a luxurious reception in his honor. At first a bit embarrassed by all the attention, Khlestakov soon warms to the role. He gladly accepts the extravagant hospitality as well as all the bribes, not to mention opportunities to flirt with the governor's wife and daughter. The deception is eventually uncovered but this only adds to the mortification and embarrassment of the governor and his cronies. (The famous satire by Gogol had its premiere in 1836 and has been revived in numerous productions around the world, including a 1949 film adaptation directed by Henry Koster and starring Danny Kaye).


Iskra Research; by F. Kreisel
This movie, despite its cast of brilliant actors in every role, is a coarse and vulgar debasement of the biting social satire written by Nikolai Gogol one and a half centuries ago. Gazarov eschews appealing to the viewers' intelligence and turns every scene into a lightweight farce.

Gazarov added a large number of farcical scenes and strokes to Gogol's script. The roles of Bobchinsky and Dobchinsky have been combined and this Bobchinsky-Dobchinsky has been told to act the part of a lunatic with a split personality, always accompanied by his alter ego Dobchinsky-Bobchinsky. While Gogol wanted to satirize the interchangeability of the petty landlords, their lack of uniqueness, Gazarov just goes for the physical laughs.

There is much stumbling and falling throughout the movie, especially in the scene of the first encounter between the governor, played by Mikhalkov, and Khlestakov, played by Mironov. There is a ridiculous scene of duck shooting from the window of the hospital in which Khlestakov shoots a couple of ducks, then a fish. This scene is worthy of The Three Stooges. The scene of the town gentry meeting with Khlestakov at the governor's house was turned into a vaudeville number: the governor's wife whistles, his daughter plays the harp, Khlestakov sings and dances, everyone else stumbles, jumps and applauds.

The discussion between Khlestakov and the hospital administrator about the ill "getting healthy like flies" is emphasized and expanded. Where Gogol wanted to show the callousness of the tsarist administrators for the public, Gazarov does not see this point of view at all. Average people do seem to be flies to him, "expensive medicine or medical treatment is not needed, if they are fated to die, they will die". On the other hand, the final scene of the movie has been designed to evoke sympathy for the governor, to somehow make him out to be an innocent victim.

There was an hour long press conference with the director, Gazarov and the two leading actors, Mikhalkov and Mironov. The first question quite obviously referred to the lack of social satire in the movie, although the journalist went out of her way to compliment the director by finding some parallels (invisible to the rest of us) between the tsarist bureaucracy portrayed in the movie and the Soviet or post-Soviet regime. In response, Gazarov took the bit between his teeth and vehemently declared: "There is in principle nothing political and social here, this is a pure comedy I took all the politics out". The audience was taken aback at this outburst since normally the directors and actors try to do just the opposite and impute some deeper meaning to their work. But questions of official corruption and theft of state assets obviously strike a nerve in present day Russia, and Mikhalkov and Gazarov see their job as deflecting any such discussion.

Mikhalkov went at length about art being pretense, developing the idea that "both the director and the actors must fool the viewer". The idea of Art being Truth is these days taken for an obvious truism, so Mikhalkov's and Gazarov's rationalization for misleading and desensitizing the public comes as a shock when expressed so directly and unequivocally. The Montreal audience of journalists and movie goers included, however, a large number of celebrity hounds and middle class yahoos. Mikhalkov skillfully played up to their mood of uncritical adulation and acceptance of status quo. When one hostile critic asked about Mikhalkov's own fake political campaign (Mikhalkov supported Chernomyrdin during the parliamentary elections), Mikhalkov refused to discuss politics. Instead he claimed that since this movie needed special sets and costumes, it required a special kind of civic courage to stage, that the director (and by implication, Mikhalkov also) were heroes for staging it. Not a single journalist present pointed out that such "courage" was quite commonplace, since most of the movies presented at the Festival were historical costume films (Baryshnia, Return of the Battleship, Road to the End Of the World, etc.).

At times it seemed that both the critics and these hack director and actors were united by a common goal: to distract the viewing public from any discussion of contemporary problems of the Russian society, to leave hidden the destruction of popular culture taking place in the former Soviet Union and the regime's responsibility for this catastrophe.

Sixty years ago Trotsky noted that the cultural efforts of totalitarian Stalinism "in the last analysis came down to taking care that art assimilates its (the Stalinist bureaucracy) interests, and finds such forms for them as will make the bureaucracy attractive to the popular masses". With Trotsky we exclaim: In vain ! No literature can fulfill that task. No movie director's tricks can make Khlestakov attractive to the Russian people.


Some general remarks

The movie industry throughout the former Soviet Union is in a state of freefall. When the initial period of Glasnost gave hope and energized the movie makers the movie production skyrocketed from 140 features in 1986 to 450 films in 1991. The movie makers were finally free to develop relevant and truthful films (Little Vera, Repentance, Melody For A Forgotten Flute, etc.). But in the next five years the introduction of a capitalist regime of movie financing led to an even more rapid collapse. For example, the only factory producing movie grade film in the Soviet Union, in Shostka, Ukraine has ceased production. The studios must now pay for film, supplies, equipment, energy, salaries, etc. according to world market rates. The old movie distribution system has collapsed, most movie theaters have been converted to other uses (casinos, private clubs) or closed down.

In 1996 there are only 50 feature films in some stage of production (the production figures are provided by the Russian film critic Andrei Plakhov). Television is dominated by imports and budget saving reruns of older Soviet era films.

The initial optimism of the Soviet intelligentsia that capitalist reforms will lead to a flowering of all forms of culture has disappeared. In its place there is now widespread demoralization. In most cases this leads to cynicism and anti cultural reaction, even to monarchism, as in the case of Mikhalkov. Writers, directors and actors prostitute themselves to the highest bidder, make low brow Hollywood-style schlock, sex films, etc. There has been mass emigration of talented actors, directors and technicians to the West, and the intellectuals have to a great extent given up on Russia (and the other ex-Soviet republics). Others rationalize a turn to religion and other miracles, even if their education prevents them from believing in God themselves. Both paths are deeply anti-intellectual and reactionary.

Only a few Russian films (eight features, I believe) made it to this Montreal Festival, and these presumably represent the best movies made. In addition there was one movie each from Estonia, Kazakhstan and Kirghizia. The Russian public will probably not see most of these films; by and large it did not see the recent films which were shown at international festivals. This absurd state of affairs reflects the requirements of capitalist social relations under conditions of a rapid descent of the post-Soviet society to barbarism. The Russian, Kazakh, Uzbek, etc. public is being brainwashed by Mexican and American soap operas, Hollywood shoot-em-ups, pornography and game shows. The Western public is being shown a few of the better Russian movies as a sort of Potemkin village, to hide the devastating consequences of market relations on the state of popular culture in the former USSR. The Western media cooperate in this charade.

Other essays