Russian Film Week in New York
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American interest in Russian film is on the wane. It has been a couple of years since The Russian Ark played in art houses, and the last year featured only The Return by Andrei Zvyagintzev, a Tarkovsky Lite effort that had been picked on the strength of the Best Film award at Venice Film Festival. It safely vanished from the same art houses after about a day and a half. Last year's Russian Film Week in New York was utterly forgettable, featuring mostly nondescript thrillers.

This year's Russian Film Week fared better. Noticeably (and thankfully) absent was Night Watch, the year's top box-office draw, a lavish $4-million-budget thriller fantasy based on a popular novel. (Its American analogs like X-men are generally based on comic strips, a genre that is nonexistent in Russia.) Night Watch's paper-thin plot follows the never-ending struggle for human souls between the Force of Light and the Force of Dark. The film's appeal to Russian audiences was based primarily on popular actors and computer-generated effects, as well as enough gore to earn the film an R rating in this country. Like his Hollywood counterparts, director Timur Bekmambetov came from making music clips; he must have seen The Matrix and Seven hundreds of times. It is almost sad to read the Russian media's endless aahs and oohs about Night Watch's box-office success. This is about showbiz, not art. Moreover, some powers-that-be have prevailed to make the film an official Russian nomination for Oscar in the best foreign film category. This reflects on Russian atavistic impulses: We can hold our own with Hollywood. Not outside Russia, you can't. As a curiosity, Night Watch may show up at your local art house, where I predict its early demise.

Instead of Night Watch, this Russian Film Week presented a varied picture of contemporary Russian film. By designating a film by Valery Todorovsky called My Stepbrother Frankenstein for the opening night, the organizers led with a strong suit. Frankenstein is a black comedy drama, based on a simple concept: the peace and quiet of a middle-class Moscow family is shattered when long-lost son Pavel shows up on their doorstep. To find out you sired a son in a one-night stand twenty years ago is not comforting, but the son turns out to be a Chechen war vet, with an ugly scar instead of his right eye. What follows is a funny, disturbing, nuanced, and ultimately tragic story of two Russias colliding in a small apartment. Despite his misgivings about the validity of Pavel's filial claim, the father tries hard to help him; to Pavel, his new family needs to be protected from the ghosts of war, which still haunt him--all told, a recipe for disaster.

Todorovsky's films are rooted in a social milieu that is Moscow's equivalent of New York's Upper West Side--liberal, sensitive, and no friends of President Putin (they would vote for Kerry, too). His worldview reminded me of an old poster "The World According to the New Yorker," where Manhattan takes up three-fourths of the space, Hudson River is close to the edge, and the rest of America, all the way to L.A., is a tiny space of dots and dashes. Upper West Siders are still puzzled by the last election returns: no one here knows anyone who voted for Bush, and they're unlikely to know anybody fighting in Iraq. Todorovsky's characters, too, think they are Russia and are shocked to have to deal with the other one. This is one foreign-made movie that sorely needs an American remake.

Another find of the Week could not be more different. Svoi ("Our Own") takes place in the early days of WWII. Three Russian soldiers--a KGB man, a Jewish officer, and a village lad (OK, so I guess it's impossible to make a war movie without having an equivalent of a US bomber crew but that's just the genre)--are taken POW by the Germans and then manage a narrow escape when the prisoner column passes the lad's village. The three find shelter at the lad's home, but there's a hitch: his father has in the meantime become appointed the Village Elder by the Germans. Now, the father, played with raw power by a Ukrainian actor Bogdan Stupa, has his own scores to settle with the Soviets, who years ago took away his farm and exiled him to Siberia. Will he hand over his son's companions to Germans? Or will he risk his own life and family because, whatever the old scores, they are still "our own"?

The director Dmitry Meskhiyev manages to have it both ways: on the one hand, the film seems to affirm national unity; on the other, his WWII seems like Civil War, Round Two: the main conflict is between the escapees and the locals who quickly donned German police uniforms. The father is caught in the middle. The Germans are strictly in the background, bemusedly regarding their vassals. There's plenty of shoot-and-stab mayhem in the movie, filmed with the latest Hollywood gimmicks, such as "skinny shutter" and "reverse print," but Meskhiyev keeps his eye firmly on the ball, putting his characters' internal struggle in the center. Unlike standard partisan / Resistance sagas, Svoi has no well-plotted Gestapo Chief assassinations: the escapees are too much concerned with minute-by-minute survival. There's no telling which villager (including father) will give shelter and which will sell them to Germans. At the end, you walk out of the theater shaken and flustered; only later, as you take Svoi apart over a beverage of your choice, you realize that except for the father, characters are rather flat, that the plot is full of holes, etc. Should it matter?

The presenter of Papa, another Russian film at the Week, demanded straight-out that "you must watch it with your heart." Papa is indeed a four-hankie tearjerker that preaches to the choir, and its story of a small-town Jewish father betrayed by his prodigy violinist son has a lot more holes than Svoi, and those holes become glaring long before you leave the theater. There are no nuances here: it's all scorching paternal love and vibrant violin music (see Together [review], a Chinese movie that handles a similar story with far more finesse), plus huge yellow stars as the father and his fellow townsmen are being led to the execution (see The Pianist and scores of others). Aside from my earlier wish for an American remake of Frankenstein, all three movies are far more important to Russians than to foreigners; in Papa's case, it is the first major film that has a shtetl Jew for a hero, played by top Russian film star Vladimir Mashkov (Thief), who also directed this movie. On the other hand, I was jarred by Mashkov's clumsy attempts to sanitize his character, to endow the story with universal humanity at the expense of his Jewishness. (I rant at length about Papa's flaws in the Jewish department, including, but not limited to, Mashkov's Moscow accent, elsewhere [external link].)

As I wrote above, the Oscar chances of the official Russian nominee, Night Watch, are dim. Papa has a good chance of scoring with Fiddler on the Roof lovers, but it is A Driver for Vera that would really have an excellent chance of winning the Oscar, repeating the 1980 success of Moscow Doesn't Believe in Tears. The year is 1962, the place is the luxurious dacha of the Black Sea Fleet admiral (again played by the properly gruff Bogdan Stupka). A new driver, a country boy, an Adonis in uniform, is assigned to drive around the Admiral's daughter--beautiful, spoiled, alcoholic, pregnant by a Cuban cadet, but all gold inside. Will their hate-love romance be consummated? Meanwhile, the KGB are plotting to get rid of the Admiral as a part of a nuclear-accident cover-up and are not beneath blackmailing the driver. Will they succeed? And so on. Director Pavel Chukhrai (Thief) knows how to push buttons: lushly photographed on the scenic Crimean coast, dark enough (the KGB always get their man!) to prevent excess sentimentality, featuring handsome actors in a Hollywood-tight plot and a lump-in-the-throat ending, this one could be a winner in L.A.

Judging by the Film Week, the Russian films are doing not too badly. The films I described above are smart, well-made, and worth seeing. The question is, Who will see them? Last August in Moscow, Night Watch played in half of its 100+ theaters; Driver for Vera played in a handful, and a quirky "small" movie called Schizo played one late-late show in Kinotzentr art house--for a few days. A few other small art houses showed European-made movies (some never seen in this country); but otherwise the film-going repertory was no different from that of an American multiplex. Clearly, the younger generation of Russian moviegoers opts for Hollywood, drawn mostly by its high production values (and they are the ones that can afford movie tickets). While proudly tallying Night Watch's box-office numbers, visiting Russian filmmakers shrugged at the lack of access of their own films: "we have let a whole generation of intelligent viewers get away," "the situation is improving," but they seem to care less about wide domestic audiences and more about earning prizes on the international film-festival circuit. And that's a shame. International film festivals, especially small ones (not Cannes), should be a milieu dedicated to "difficult" films, made with a priori understanding that they are for small audiences. (Actually, Zvyagintzev's Return, mentioned earlier, is a good example.) But the films described here are not "difficult" and should be seen by the widest Russian audiences. It is too bad that the Russian filmmakers have ceded the arena to the likes of Night Watch.

Photos courtesy of Russian Film Week.