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russian resurrection film festival


a deep breath of russian cinema

thomas redwood: 2008 russian resurrection film festival


The Banishment The Banishment
THE SEARCH FOR AN IMAGE OF NATIONAL IDENTITY IS A CENTRAL PREOCCUPATION IN CONTEMPORARY RUSSIAN CINEMA. THIS IS HARDLY SURPRISING—RUSSIA’S BEEN THROUGH A LOT OF SIGNIFICANT CHANGES IN THE PAST 20 YEARS. THE COLLAPSE OF SOCIALISM, THE RESULTANT RECESSION, THE MORE RECENT BOOM AND THE WAR IN CHECHNYA HAVE UNFOLDED DURING A TIME OF SIGNIFICANT MIGRATIONS BETWEEN THE OLD SOVIET REPUBLICS. DEMOGRAPHICALLY, ECONOMICALLY, CULTURALLY, RUSSIA TODAY IS A VERY DIFFERENT PLACE THAN IT WAS ONLY A FEW YEARS BACK; SO MUCH SO THAT MANY OLDER RUSSIANS CLAIM TO BARELY RECOGNISE THE PLACE. IN LIGHT OF SUCH MAJOR TRANSFORMATIONS, IT MAKES SENSE THAT RUSSIAN CINEMA SHOULD BE FOCUSED RATHER INTENTLY ON DOCUMENTING WHAT KIND OF A PLACE THIS ‘NEW RUSSIA’ IS. AND AT THIS YEAR’S 5TH ANNUAL RUSSIAN RESURRECTION FILM FESTIVAL, THIS CONCERN FORMED THE THEMATIC BACKDROP TO ALMOST ALL OF THE NEW FILMS SHOWN.

At the top of this year’s list was Andrei Zvyagintev’s second feature The Banishment (2007), to my mind it is one of the few genuinely great narrative films of this century. Delicately composed around a scenario of grief (the details of which are, believe it or not, of secondary importance), The Banishment employs style over plot to enter an emotional, metaphysical, even spiritual narrative realm. It’s a realm beyond language, of sounds and passing visions, an uncanny space where dream, reality, nightmare and archetype overlap, and through which humans pass, often unaware of its many details. The vision Zvyagintev presents of this life is uncompromising, life is difficult, and no doubt many viewers will find the director’s typically Russian preoccupation with death too bleak. But there is also potential redemption here. So much of our lives, it seems, remains unspoken, unshared, unnoticed, and it is these gaps between expression and between each of us, that the director seeks to open up with The Banishment. I was left spiritually shaken by this film, as if a formally dormant part of my life had been prodded and awoken. There are few cinematic experiences I can compare it to.

If The Banishment was the dark jewel of the festival, the gala film (the type of feature that goes rather well with smoked herring and vodka cocktails) was Karen Shakhnazarov’s The Vanished Empire (2008). Set in 1973 at the high water mark of the Soviet state, this refined pseudo-autobiography unfolds around the slow awakening to adulthood of young Muscovite Sergey Narbekov (Alexander Lyapin). A brash, cocky, “would-be-intelligent-if-he-weren’t-so-stupid” kind of guy, Sergey is your standard model, post-adolescent male who just happens to live a few blocks from the Kremlin. Uninterested in the glorious history of the Communist Party, Sergey’s principal concerns include acquiring a black market copy of The Dark Side of the Moon, smoking grass with his loafer friends and getting it on with the leggy brunette who sits two rows in front him at the pedagogical institute. This is, at least, until the high energy of Sergey’s hormonal influx is met and pulverized by the equal and opposing force of true heartbreak.

A nostalgic film, full of happy colours and conspicuously free of secret police, The Vanished Empire is far from the dark history of Brezhnev era Russia that audiences might expect. Indeed, its director Shakhnazharov has been criticized by more than one reviewer for indulging in an unforgivably rosy representation of life in the late Soviet system. Such criticisms are further provoked by the film’s coda, where a now 50 year old Sergey bumps into his former chum Kostia in Moscow’s vast and depressing Sheremetyevo airport. Both have now left Moscow and both are relatively bemused by what they find. “Where’s Moscow?”, the sad and puffy eyed Kostia asks. “I look around, and I don’t recognise anything—everything is foreign, evil.” While this is a view that Shakhnazharov cares neither to affirm nor refute, what remains at the end of The Vanished Empire is a strong sense of the disappearance of an identity, both national and personal. It is perhaps the ageing Sergey’s nostalgia not for Russian socialism but for his young self that colours this film so strongly.

A more modest production was the young director Vera Strozheva’s Traveling with Pets (2007), winner of the Best Film Award at the 2007 Moscow International Film Festival. A minimal narrative, Strozheva’s film tells the story of Natalia, an enslaved and emotionally frozen young woman who suddenly finds herself freed from bondage when her cruel overlord/husband drops dead one cold morning. As Natalia hauls the fat corpse to the morgue, a younger and far more desirable Russian beau makes his move on the woman’s body. And though for a time Natalia submits to her new mate, it soon begins to dawn on her that this is all tastes a bit too much like the same old wine. So she paints a canoe and begins a search for happiness elsewhere.

Like the more difficult The Banishment, Traveling with Pets provides a clear example of the influence of Andrei Tarkovsky on young Russian filmmakers. Although not a particularly complex, religious or philosophical drama, Strozheva’s film nevertheless employs the distinctively Tarkovskian approach by engaging its audience in a kind of metaphysical journey through a subjectivist Russian landscape (captured in typically beautiful de-saturated tones by director of photography Oleg Lukichev). Simultaneously personal and allegorical of the nation at large, Traveling with Pets was another film concerned with the finding of identity, in this case not an identity lost, but an identity yet to be discovered. Watching Natalia’s face gradually open over the course of the narrative, Strozheva invites her audience (though without obligation) to witness the thawing of Russia.

These were just a few of the stand-out films at this year’s resurrection. It was a fine season—a real reflection of the health of the Russian film industry today. And had I the room I would just as willingly heap praise on Nikita Mikhalov’s legal drama 12 (2007), Sergei Dvortseyov’s lovely Tulpan (2008), Alexei Uchitel’s harrowing war-drama Captive (2008) and Aleksei Popogrebsky’s multi award winning Simple Things (2007). All of these films were, of course, quite different. But in saying that, it’s not altogether irrational for a person to claim their general appreciation for Russian cinema. There is a perspective that a national cinema adopts—a position in relationship to the rest of the world. And in Russian cinema this position tends to be at one step removed from what we are used to here in Australia. It’s an aloofness to the rules of the game that we might label “reflective”, or “eccentric” or just plain “deep.” In any case, it’s helpful to take a deep breath of Russian cinema’s aloofness, because in doing so, we can also afford to take a step back, and begin to discern, at the very least, what does and does not matter.


2008 Russian Resurrection Film Festival National Tour, Oct 29-Nov 19, www.russianresurrection.com

RealTime issue #88 Dec-Jan 2008 pg. 23

© Tom Redwood; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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