3 recent Russian films

Copyright: Iskra Research; by F. Kreisel; Sept. 28, 1995.

The recently concluded ten day long Montreal Film Festival paid special attention to Israeli, Latin American and Canadian films. However a number of recent Russian films were presented as well. This writer was able to see three of these films and here are my impressions. Preceding my analyses I have included the official capsule descriptions provided by the Festival organizers. But let us look at the movies. . .

Muzyka dlia dekabria -- Music For December

Director: Ivan Dukhovichny
Producers' film capsule

Alexander Larin, a famous artist, a former Soviet citizen, returns to Russia from the United States. He comes to see Masha Bersenieva, a beautiful young woman whom he knew when she was a child. At the time he was going to marry her mother Anna, but when he found himself falling in love with the daughter, Larin became afraid of the consequences and he left them both. Six years have passed since then. Anna has married a rich businessman and Masha is engaged. Larin's sudden appearance upsets the stability of the women's lives. Larin's visit is a hopeless attempt to return to a country which no longer exists, to love which has vanished. The past overtakes him as punishment. Six years earlier Larin betrayed not so much his love as himself. In contrast to Larin is Mitia, Masha's fiance, who is forthright about his feelings and has no intention of abandoning his values and principles.

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The story begins with the landing of a foreign airliner in the St. Petersburg airport. A Russian painter who had settled in the US a few years ago arrives back home to a changed and renamed Leningrad. We see nothing much of the city, what we see of it appears empty, run down, uninhabited. Two small boys beg the new arrival for a dollar and scornfully reject rubles. Telephones are vandalized.

The action centers on an artistically inclined family living in a huge mansion on the banks of the Neva river. How did they manage to occupy this large building? What happened to its former tenants? How does this family make a living? What do they do all day besides smoking, drinking vodka and quarreling in front of the TV? Good questions all, but the answers are left to the viewer's imagination.

The slim, attractive forty-something mother is excited that her former lover has come back and something will change in her chain-smoking, soul-searching-and-not-finding-anything existence. Her beautiful daughter is about to marry an art photographer, a very nice, sensitive and gifted boy. The mother has a husband, a businessman of the new type: a Mafia kingpin who controls half the city, a ruthless trader and a player of Russian roulette, just as ready to put a murder contract out on someone as to shoot himself. He seems to be the provider of the house, the source of wealth, power, money, contacts, servants, caviar, passports, plane tickets abroad, subsidies for the young photographer and so on.

Without going into the whole story we should immediately note that normal working people are absent with a few exceptions: waiters, bartenders, bodyguards and the above mentioned street urchins. The only social or political comment comes from the mouth of the Godfather's second in command. This fine fellow is a fascist nationalist who wants to kick all the liberals out and to set up a “strong” regime which will bring order.

The movie ends with a couple of killings, a suicide and a case of madness. The final scene is of the same plane taking off from Russia and flying to that other planet -- the Golden West. One final note: the main actor who played the part of Larin, the Russian-American painter, has in real life already abandoned Mother Russia and settled in Montreal, Canada.

Needless to say, a flat plot like this brought out the worst in all of the actors: they are without exception wooden mannequins, mere shadows and caricatures of people. They are totally unreal and unbelievable. A wise viewer will avoid this film.


Mania Giseli -- Gisele's Mania

Director: Alexei Uchitel Producers' film capsule

The spectacular life and career of Russian ballerina Olga Spesivtseva, who died from dementia in New York in 1991 at the age of 96, is recounted in this film not as a biography but as a chronicle of her love affairs, particularly with the ballet “Giselle”. “Giselle” immortalized her life and “Giselle” destroyed her life. The mysterious relationships between talent and madness, between creativity and obsession, between freedom and fate are explored in a film that is part drama, part detective story and part elegy on the power of love.

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This is a complicated story within a story. In the present Russia a couple of ballet dancers entertain the vodka swilling and cocaine sniffing clientele of an exclusive garden night club. Somehow the story turns into a tale of a great Russian ballerina, Olga Spesivtseva. We meet her as a young hopeful at the St. Petersburg ballet school before the outbreak of World War I. She gets her big break when an ageing ballet critic notices her pas de plies. Olga sleeps with the critic and becomes a star. After the Revolution and the Civil War she abandons the critic and, attracted by the new power elite, sleeps with Lev Kamenev's assistant, a young Chekist. Then she emigrates to Paris, charms the pants off a few ballet aficionados, is rejected by a gay dancer and meets a rich American ballet lover. In 1932 she is filmed in the role of Gisele and critics rave about the reality of Gisele's madness.

All around her men become miserable: the critic has to go back to his ugly wife; Kamenev's assistant is shot by the GPU; the gay dancer doesn't get to be in the movie and turns out not to be gay at all; the rich American financier turns out to be in the employ of the Soviet secret police and is killed as well. Spesivtseva eventually goes mad and is shut up in a New York insane asylum.

Back in today's Russia the new ballerina, who may be the reincarnation of Spesivtseva, is also going crazy. Does anyone care?

Out of all the theatrical forms of art ballet has always been the most abstract, elitist and remote from the masses of people. While it is physically demanding of the actor, it is also most corruptive. As Olga Spesivtseva says about herself and her colleagues: "We always sleep with the rich and the mighty". The Imperial Russian ballet had provided bedmates for the tsarist ministers and governors; the great Soviet ballets supplied courtesans for the Politburo. Today, the Russian ballet troupes hardly ever perform in Russia; the mighty dollar and D-mark buy nights of pleasure with the dancer-prostitutes (male and female); the extensive preparatory schools for young dancers are withering away and there will be no new Ulanovas, Plisetskaias and Nureyevs.


Musulmanin -- A Moslem

Director Vladimir Khotinenko Producers' film capsule

When he went to fight for his country, Ivanov was a hero. Now that he has returned from seven years as a prisoner of war in Afghanistan — “from the other world” — his family and his village are not so sure. The Afghan war veteran has returned as a Moslem. A devout Moslem to boot. He has his rug, prays towards Mecca five times a day and mutters “Allah Akhbar”. He no longer drinks, smokes or touches girls. And, worst of all, he won't steal. “ son”, his mother cries, “do you think we don't know that to steal is wrong? . . . But stealing from the state, that is how we survive!” Some of the villagers secretly sympathize with the boy, but theirs is a very insular society and the world of Islam is threatening. Ivanov is no longer a hometown boy, he's a stranger — a “Moslem” — and the threat has come home.

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This film was introduced at the festival by the director and the producer. Speaking poor English they wanted to say one thing: they are dedicated to Russia, they are not about to leave it and emigrate.

Many things set this film apart from the rest. It is set in the country, not in any city (actually in the region of Riazan'); it is filmed mainly outdoors, not inside a bar, a house or a theatre. It celebrates Nature; it contrasts the clean, healthy beauty of the river and the rolling green meadows with the ugly, stultifying social relationships predominating in this and in many other villages of Russia.

The main personages, Ivanov and his mother are set before us with sympathy and love. The young man is struggling to understand his place in the Universe; the Moslem God is for him a set of ethics, a guide to his relationship with his family, his neighbors and the rest of humanity. Ivanov tenaciously clings to the Moslem prayers he learned in the far off mountain village in Afghanistan from his adopted grandfather who rescued him from a firing squad.

Ivanov's mother is like everybody's mother, working to provide for her family, always worrying about her children, her home. The elder son is a drunken lout, disgusting in his crude laziness and anger, stealing the family's valuables to buy a bottle of vodka, dangerous when frightened by something incomprehensible, like his younger brother's religion. The brothers fight and the home situation turns murderously ugly. There is a moment in the movie, when the mother tearfully tells her beloved younger son that he must leave home to prevent a tragedy. She loves him, but the elder son, the lazy, no good drunkard needs her more. This scene shattered me with its reality and truth.

The movie's portrayal of the economic and social changes is commendable, although incomplete. The story alludes to the ongoing shady machinations of the local leadership. Apparently the collective farm of the Soviet days survives and everyone still works half heartedly in the communal fields and still steals whole heartedly for the private cow and for the tiny garden plot. But now, some land deals are being hatched behind the backs of the villagers. The director of the farm is still running things in a heavy hand, but he has left the “Communist” Party and instead of a red Party card he now boasts a gold Orthodox cross. He drives around in a car and even flies in an army helicopter. He receives a million dollars for selling something, we are not quite sure what.

Alas, in today's Russia there are no happy tales to tell, so this movie also ends in a tragedy. The directors are too honest to pretend that some set of circumstances, some economic factors or even some God, Moslem or Orthodox, will change the situation for the better. It is up to us to consider: What is to be done?

If, which seems unlikely in view of the monopolization of American cinema by Hollywood shlock, this movie does appear in the United States, it should not be missed.

Some general conclusions.

In general, the Russian cinema, like the rest of national culture is in a period of sharp decline. The number of films produced is down because the industry is no longer subsidized by the state as in the past. The budgetary considerations lead the directors to eliminate or minimize the more expensive production features like street scenes, car chases, location shoots, etc. The process of talent drain, similar to the brain drain in science and engineering, is depleting the industry as the more talented actors, technicians and directors migrate to the West or to more lucrative pursuits.

We should also consider the ideological void of today's post-Soviet society. The illusions, which dominated among the artistic strata of the Soviet Union a few years ago have dissipated. Five or ten years ago these elements believed that the dismantling of centralized planning and the introduction of the regime of the bourgeois market will rapidly reward them with prosperous and secure life-styles (the “Dallas” and “Santa Barbara” syndrome). Instead, the "free professions" have today all but disappeared. The great literary and scientific journals have closed, the institutes are dying of hyperinflation, the medical professionals (with the exception of those few serving the government and business Mafia) are underpaid, deprived of basic supplies and overwhelmed with the effects of the general social and medical catastrophes. This week's public teachers' strikes illustrate the desperate state of the educated layers.

Another factor to consider: who is funding these movies? It is a fact that the producers and the directors must go hat in hand to the Mafia kingpins begging them for donations to produce the next film. One does not, of course, bite the hand that feeds him. Hence, instead of painting a true picture of reality, we get evasions, half-truths, escapes into the past, etc. Films today do not attract the public; from what we saw at the Festival, with reason. A recent article in the well known illustrated weekly Ogonyek decried the fact that Russian films are produced primarily for the various festivals, mostly foreign, while the public is treated to a steady diet of second rate Western shoot-em-ups and TV fantasies about the lives of the rich and famous.

The reality of Russian capitalism is shocking beyond belief; it should call for an explosion of literary and cinematic indignation. Why does not a new Saltykov-Schedrin satirize the Prime Minister Chernomyrdin for his numerous stock portfolios? Why does not a new Gogol cut into President Yeltsin, drunk both with power and with vodka? A young Gorky should be telling the stories of the current lower depths, for example the ghoulish fact that in Moscow thousands of elderly pensioners were murdered in the past couple of years in order to steal their apartments. A new Lev Tolstoy should be painting the dramas of the social disaster overwhelming every layer of society.

Similarly in film. The young Soviet cinema of the 1920's, which gave us the docudrama of Eisenstein's Potemkin and the intense breathtaking realism of Dziga Vertov, was animated by deep optimism. Eisenstein, Vertov, Pudovkin and others believed in the future, in their ability to affect changes, in the perfectibility of both society and Man. Today's cinema is permeated, on the contrary, by deep pessimism, tempered only by opportunistic mysticism.

The Russian filmmakers, as well as writers, poets, musicians, artists, etc. are unwilling to look squarely at the developing capitalist reality because, hampered as they are by the fatal identification of Stalinism with socialism, they see no alternative to it.

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