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nationalistic fervour & metaphysical reverie

tom redwood: 2009 russian resurrection film festival


Wild Field Wild Field
PLAYING IN ALL MAINLAND STATE CAPITALS FROM MID-AUGUST THROUGH TO SEPTEMBER, THE 2009 RUSSIAN RESURRECTION FILM FESTIVAL BRINGS A VERY MIXED BAG OF RUSSIAN CINEMATIC TREATS TO OUR SHORES. TYPICALLY OBSCURE METAPHYSICAL DRAMAS LINE UP ALONGSIDE A BRASH AMERICAN STYLE NAVAL BLOCKBUSTER WHILE SUBVERSIVE BLACK COMEDIES SHARE THE FLOOR WITH (WAIT FOR IT) A RAUNCHY TEEN MUSICAL. ALWAYS KEEN TO KEEP AN EYE ON THE DIVERSE AND RAPIDLY CHANGING TRENDS IN RUSSIAN CINEMA, I WAS PRIVILEGED TO GET AN EARLY GLIMPSE OF THIS YEAR’S SELECTION.

wild field (dikoe pole, 2008)

No doubt the artistic draw card of this year’s festival is Wild Field, a quiet, unusual and very beautiful film directed by Mikheil Kalatozishvili. Forever introduced as the grandson of celebrated Soviet director Mikhail Kalatozov (director of the 1958 masterpiece The Cranes are Flying), Kalatozishvili is himself an accomplished and very talented filmmaker, and in Wild Field he has made his first significant critical success. Scrupulously based on a script written by the late Aleksei Samoriadov and Petr Lutsik, the film presents a gentle and fleeting metaphor of the contemporary Russian dilemma: which road to take after communism.

Set in and around a medical outpost in the endless Kazakh steppe, Wild Field presents a miscellaneous band of post-Soviet yokels and their health problems as seen through the eyes of regional doctor Dmitri Morozov (Oleg Dolin). Dmitri, known as Mitia, is a peaceful man himself, content to tend to the needs of his clinic and make do with a far from ideal situation. But for a GP the problems of others are never far away and though he does his best to keep things in order, Mitia inevitably finds his life upturned by forces beyond his control.

An intangible film, like dust through the fingers, Wild Field has a light but also curiously haunting resonance. With an elegant flow of images (wonderfully shot by Petr Dukhovskoi) Kalatozishvili carries the audience along, gently, into the dreamlike intimacy of Mitia’s life and the surreal vastness of the Kazakh steppe. From its opening shot Wild Field teeters, like a many great Russian lyrical films, between realism and dream in the fields of parable and metaphor. Some reviewers have described the film as a work of ‘magic realism’ (like a Marquez novel displaced into the epic landscapes of Asiatic Russia) and this is perhaps a useful comparison. As with many Russian films of the past 50 years, Wild Field seems to be trying to negotiate with the troubled nation’s past through a filter of imagination, dream and fantasy, in an attempt, perhaps, to reclaim it. Though certainly less demanding than last year’s masterpiece, The Banishment, Wild Field is an obscure political-metaphysical gem that should not be missed by anyone interested in new Russian cinema. It has received a host of international awards, including Best Film at Portugal’s Estoril Festival, the Art Cinema Award at Venice and the Critics Award at Kinotavr.

morphine (morfiy, 2008)

Coincidentally, Wild Field isn’t the only “doctor in the Russian wilderness” story to feature at this year’s festival. There’s also Morphine, a subversive black comedy that makes you wonder just how much more great material is out there. Directed by Alexei Balabanov (cult director of Brother [Brat, 1997]), Morphine is based on the autobiographical reminiscences, Notes of a Young Doctor, by the great Soviet author Mikhail Bulgakov (The Master and Margarita)

Set in an eventful 1917, though with barely any mention of the revolution, Morphine follows the experiences of Mikhail Polyakov (Leonid Bichevin) as he arrives in a remote provincial town to take up a post as resident physician and surgeon. Anxious, handsome and hypersensitive, Mikhail is besieged on arrival by the kinds of health problems that destroyed Napoleon’s ranks. After contact with diphtheria, the young doctor soon finds himself with more than a casual addiction to morphine—and that’s where the real problems start. A sick man tending to the sick, Mikhail’s descent is gradual, but inevitable, until his total abandonment to despair and madness.

For the first 20 minutes of Morphine you could be forgiven for thinking that director Balabanov has grown out of the shock-tactic tendencies of his earlier films. Such is the stylistic refinery of this period piece (though with early hints of eccentricity) that it assumes the tone of a good-natured literary adaptation, of the kind institutionalised by the BBC. But fear not, because Morphine’s provincial period setting serves merely as a pretext for the doctor’s increasingly bizarre medical experiences. Once at the surgical table, the film really kicks into gear with painstaking and very imaginative recreations of Bulgakov’s detailed medical descriptions. Though at times astonishingly gruesome (sensitive viewers should close their eyes at the first mention of amputation), Morphine’s graphic portrayals never slide into gratuitous horror. The result is a surprisingly original, if not altogether profound, experience of life in early 20th century Russia, something akin to Chekhov’s Ward Six meets Gunther von Hagens. And if that doesn’t tickle your fancy, what does?

admiral (admiral, 2008)

Of course, a festival like the Russian Resurrection isn’t only for fans of the unusual and the subversive. It’s also a place where Australian audiences can get a taste of more popular Russian films. And that’s where Admiral steps in. Epic in scope, it’s the latest in a growing line of domestically targeted Russian blockbusters. Produced by Channel One studios and distributed internationally by Fox, the film broke all box office records in Russia last year.

Here in Australia, festival audiences will probably want to see Admiral on the basis of its director Andrei Kravchuk’s previous film, The Italian. It is perhaps necessary, then, to point out that few films could be less like The Italian than Admiral. Where Kravchuk previously explored the experiences of an orphan child with gentle intimacy, in Admiral he embarks on an action packed, heroic reconstruction of the life of White Army commander, Admiral Aleksandr Kolchak. A key counter-revolutionary figure in the Russian Civil War, he has remained a martyr for nationalist resistance to Bolshevism. Here we see him portrayed not only as a national hero but even a spiritual one, virtuous to the bone.

Less than subtle in its ideological allegiances, Admiral has sparked serious criticism from the liberals in Russia, who have been so bold as to question the film’s historical authenticity. Indeed, as an ideological statement, Admiral presents a provocative indication of the growing nationalist fervour in Russia. For 80 years Russians had to sit through Bolshevik propaganda, and here we see the backlash, a Potemkin from the officer’s point of view.

hipsters (stilyagi, 2008)

Another Russian director to make a very sharp U-turn is Valery Todorovsky, director of the action thriller Vice which played at last year’s festival. This year Todorovsky greets festival audiences with the colourful and epileptic Hipsters, a teen-pop-musical that will make both Russian adolescents and cultural anthropologists jump for joy.

Set in the post-Stalinist cultural “Thaw” of the mid-1950s, Hipsters uses song, dance and teenage love to educate its audience about a unique period of Soviet history, when brief glimmerings of American jazz and cool hair shone in the totalitarian state. Pinned squarely against the soulless machine of Bolshevism, Hipsters reveals, like Admiral, an overtly negative mythologizing of the Soviet state. The dreaded Party is here represented as a kind of comic book ‘evil empire.’ It is indeed a revelation to realise that the target audience of this film, Russian teenagers, will never have lived a day under the Soviet regime, the surest sign of the all-consuming tide of history.


2009 Russian Resurrection Film Festival: Palace Cinema, Como, Melbourne, Aug 19-26; Chauvel Cinema, Sydney, Aug 20-31; Palace Centro Cinema, Brisbane, Sept 3-9; Cinema Paradiso, Perth, Sept, 10-16; Palace Nova, Adelaide, Sept 10-16; www.russianresurrection.com

RealTime issue #92 Aug-Sept 2009 pg. 30

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

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