The 2017 FIPRESCI Colloquium on Russian Cinema (Web Exclusive)
by Godfrey Cheshire

Religious protests and a firebombing preceded the release of Mathilde, a lushly designed melodrama about the affair between future Czar Nicholas II and a ballerina.

In mid-November 2017, weeks after marking the centenary of Russia’s October Revolution, St. Petersburg hosted the first International Federation of Film Critics Colloquium on Russian Cinema, a gathering designed to introduce current Russian filmmaking to critics from around the world. FIPRESCI (Fédération Internationale de la Presse Cinématographique) is the Paris- and Munich-based international film critics association, and its fourteen members attending the Russia event hailed from countries including Brazil, Great Britain, the United States, Sweden, Australia, France, Turkey, Serbia, Holland, and Israel. The Colloquium encompassed three intensive days of screenings and discussions with the films’ makers. Attendees were then invited to stay for the sixth St. Petersburg International Cultural Forum, which embraces many arts besides cinema.

The latter event was opened by President Vladimir Putin, who took the stage of the Mariinsky Theater and, in five crisp minutes of welcoming remarks, said it was “strategic” to project Russia’s culture onto the world stage via its arts. Investing heavily in culture isn’t a policy that many other right-wing or authoritarian leaders might advocate, but Putin obviously is serious about his project, perhaps especially concerning cinema, the potential of which so captivated his Bolshevik forebears. After he left the stage, a film detailing the state’s commitment to the arts noted, for example, that cinema attendance has doubled in the last five years, that nine of the past year’s top ten box-office hits had government backing, and that the state is committed to the construction of new theaters and production facilities.

If projecting Russian culture outward assumes both domestic and international target audiences, it doesn’t necessarily follow that the resulting images will all be positive. In Moscow just days before Putin’s appearance in St. Petersburg, the production team of the new ballet Nureyev walked onto the stage of the legendary Bolshoi Theatre wearing T-shirts reading “Free the Director!” The artist in question, Kirill Serebrennikov, has been under house arrest since August, charged in a fraud case, although it’s widely thought that his real offenses were political. Besides his theatrical work, he directed The Student, a film acclaimed at Cannes that targets Russian authoritarianism and religious extremism. Similar themes are at the heart of this year’s Russian nominee for the foreign-language film Oscar, Andrey Zvyagintsev’s Loveless, which has drawn fire from conservatives and was made without state funding after the regime disapproved of the director’s last film, Leviathan.

St. Petersburg, Putin’s hometown, testifies to both the convergences and conflicts in Russia’s embrace of cinema. The second-largest and legendarily most cosmopolitan of Russian cities, this “Venice of the North,” with its canals and amazing number of surviving Czarist palaces and churches, during our visit hosted an exhibition dedicated to the most seminal of modern Russian filmmakers, Andrei Tarkovsky, whose memorabilia and drawings for films such as Solaris and Stalker adorn the ground floor of the elegant Stroganov Palace, now an adjunct of the Russian Museum. Not far away, the enormous complex of the Hermitage Museum houses a centennial exhibit entitled “1917—The Winter Palace and the Hermitage: History Was Made Here,” which can’t help but recall that cinema history was made here, too. Long before Alexander Sokurov’s dazzling single-shot feature Russian Ark (2002) converted the Hermitage into an emblem of Russian cultural memory, Sergei Eisenstein’s October: Ten Days That Shook the World (1928), commissioned to commemorate the tenth anniversary of the October Revolution, depicted the storming of the Winter Palace in a way that was largely fanciful but so powerful that it’s often taken as historically accurate.

Eisenstein’s film is one of numerous classics associated with Lenfilm Studio, where the screenings and discussions for the FIPRESCI Colloquium were held. The oldest of Russia’s film studios, with roots that date back to the prerevolutionary period, Lenfilm’s facilities effectively serve as a mini-Hermitage of cinema, with numerous rooms and displays showcasing sets, costumes, and props of productions from decades past. The place also has an increasingly vital present. Since the appointment of producer and director Fyodor Bondarchuk as its chairman in 2012, Lenfilm has undergone extensive renovations, and its increasing production and continued expansion reflect the Putin government’s cultural objectives and backing. For Russians concerned with their cinema’s development, though, both its recent commercial and artistic strides have received scant international recognition. That’s one of the main reasons for the staging of the Colloquium, according to Andrei Plakhov, the eminent Russian critic who served as the event’s moderator.

“In Russia,” he wrote, “nothing of this sort happened since the early Perestroika. Recently, the hopes for the integration of Russian cinema into the world film process melted, and we are even more terra incognita than in the era of the Iron Curtain. Separate films and even brands (for example, animation) sometimes fall into foreign commercial releases, but more often, the case is limited. Yes, our films are shown and awarded at festivals. But still, only a few Russian directors' names mean something to foreign professionals, not to mention the general public.”

The Colloquium’s organizers intend for it to become a biennial event, and say that future editions will include documentaries, animation, and other aspects of Russian cinema not represented in the inaugural edition. Those omissions aside, the first edition should serve as a useful template since it encompassed an impressive array of recent cinema, from prize-worthy art films to Hollywood-scale blockbusters, many of which reflect new developments in Russian filmmaking.

Auteurist Eccentricities

  The early days of Russian pornography are depicted in  Of Freaks and Men , a recently restored 1998 film by the late Alexey Balabanov.

The early days of Russian pornography are depicted in Of Freaks and Men, a recently restored 1998 film by the late Alexey Balabanov.

Appropriately, the event’s film programmers set the stage for the new films by providing what might be called a double backward glance concerning St. Petersburg and cinema. In leading off with a new restoration of Alexsey Balabanov’s Of Freaks and Men, a 1998 film, they paid tribute to a hometown auteur who many Russian critics believe deserves wider international renown (born in 1959, Balabanov died in 2013, having directed fourteen features) via a movie that provides a drolly imaginative account of early Russian cinema’s smuttier underside.

Set in St. Petersburg just before the revolution, Of Freaks and Men concerns two respectable families who share a building with a crew of men who make fast-and-cheap porn one-reelers. These don’t depict hardcore sex but rather show various shapely females baring their behinds and then being paddled, usually by an old woman: a wittily credible evocation of early twentieth-century erotica (Balabanov was reportedly inspired by the vintage porn in a European sex museum). As one family contains a blind wife and conjoined Siamese twins, and its story traces the steady erosion of middle-class stability by the forces of exploitation and disorder, the film almost suggests the dreamlife of a crumbling society about to see its mores swept away by the tides of history. With motifs that recall filmmakers ranging from Luis Buñuel and Todd Browning to David Lynch and Guy Maddin, Of Freaks and Men nonetheless makes the case for Balabanov as a highly original talent whose career had a tragically early end.

Among the recent films screened, Rustam Khamdamov’s The Bottomless Bag easily equaled Balabanov’s film for visual wit and auteurist eccentricity. Born in Tashkent in 1944 and active as a filmmaker since the 1960s, Khamdamov has lived in Paris and worked as a jewelry designer and artist for fashion houses; in 2003, he became the first living artist to have his paintings displayed in the Hermitage. That background says a lot about the nature and appeal of his new film, which was shot in luminous black and white and set during the reign of Czar Alexander II and centuries earlier.

  Painterly influences and luxurious settings help provide the fairytale-like atmosphere of  Bottomless Bag , a feature by renowned artist Rustam Khamdamov.

Painterly influences and luxurious settings help provide the fairytale-like atmosphere of Bottomless Bag, a feature by renowned artist Rustam Khamdamov.

Adapted from “In the Grove,” a short story by Ryunosuke Akutagawa, the film begins with a lady-in-waiting telling the Czar an enigmatic story about a thirteenth-century prince who was killed in a haunted forest under mysterious circumstances. In Rashomon fashion, we then see various fairy-tale characters offer their accounts of the crime, in the process conjuring up magic lakes and glittering mirrors, stolen boxes and broken egg shells, mushroom people and a forest witch, not to mention a prince tied to a tree and pierced with arrows à la Saint Sebastian. While all this may remind foreign viewers of films by the likes of Jean Cocteau or Sergei Paradjanov, Russian critic Yaroslav Zabaluyev writes that, “The key to understanding The Bottomless Bag is painting—pictures of Biliban and the World of Art movement.” [Biliban was an illustrator and stage designer and a contributor to the World of Art magazine.] The critic adds that this is not simply an aestheticized dream of the past, since the tale the Czar is told foreshadows “a time when there will be no more princes in Russia.”

Historical resonances from recent Russian history, meanwhile, infuse Yusup Razykov’s contemporary drama Sella Turcica, which has a pleasingly deceptive opening. A young man and woman, both very attractive, converse in a café, leading us to glean that she is a veteran porn performer and he a somewhat nervous newbie. A bald, pudgy plain-faced man observes them, then follows them to a house where they’re to film a scene. Though we may naturally assume that the film will concern these porn actors (like a latter-day Of Freaks and Men), they quickly disappear from the story, which, we soon realize, concerns the pudgy observer.

He is a former government security officer who, though retired, can’t give up the habit of peeking into other people’s lives. A fastidious man of inflexible routines who lives alone except for visits by a maid who cleans up and occasionally submits to bouts of grunting, emotionless sex, he spies on his neighbors and anyone else who arouses his interest. Though he seems trapped in a psychic cul de sac, the man (played in beautiful deadpan style by Valeriy Maslov) one day hears arias sung by a woman upstairs, and it seems to awaken something in him. Nevertheless, as critic Ksenia Reutova notes, Razykov’s film is “like The Lives of Others turned inside out,” in that the “sweet transformation” of the German film’s protagonist “is completely impossible in Russian reality.”

A veteran filmmaker born in Uzbekistan, Razykov finds a great theme in the survival of communism’s mental structures. Filming in a distanced, uninflected style that reminds some observers of the New Romanian Cinema, he has created a quietly devastating portrait of the kind of homo Sovieticus who still inhabits Putin’s Russia. That current reality, incidentally, was reflected in something that happened after the showing of Razykov’s film, which has a scene where the protagonist witnesses two men kissing. Apparently some right-wing Russians (critics? activists?) managed to get into the screening, because when the Q&A began, a loud voice demanded, “Why homosexuality?” To which the moderator instantly shot back, “Why not?”

Newer Visions

Perhaps the most hopeful sign offered by the Colloquium’s screenings was that the four films that seemed to impress the international critics the most came from younger directors. And two of these illustrated another encouraging trend: the rise of regional filmmaking scenes in places far distant from the cinema capitals of Moscow and St. Petersburg.

A kidnapping puts pressure on a Russian Jewish family in Kantemir Balagov’s Closeness, a controversial prize-winner at Cannes.

At the opening of his grimly powerful drama Closeness, director Kantemir Balagov (b. 1991) notes that it reflects his own upbringing in the desolate town of Nalchik, North Caucasus, a place of endemic poverty and assorted clashing ethnicities. Set in 1998 and derived from a news story of that time, the film starts out by focusing on twenty-four-year-old tomboy Ilana (a strikingly charismatic debut by Darya Zhovnar), who works in the garage of her mechanic father. One night, after Ilana joins her Jewish family in a boisterous dinner in celebrating the engagement of her brother, the young couple is kidnapped. The culprits demand a very steep ransom, which sends Ilana’s family and the small Jewish community into a tailspin. How much are they willing to sacrifice? Selling the family business won’t raise the price, nor will ransacking the community’s meager coffers. The tensions resulting from the crisis make the double meaning of the film’s title very apt: closeness can help sustain individuals and groups, but it can also prove suffocating.

Balagov studied directing under Alexander Sokurov at Kabardino-Balkarian State University, and his work here is impressively assured, with a Cassavetes-like raw realism that never relents. Filming handheld in close quarters and Academy ratio, he makes the small, impoverished town’s claustrophobic oppressiveness palpable, and elicits vivid performances from a top-notch cast. While the Jewish community’s internal problems and identity issues within the town are persuasively rendered, Ilana remains the story’s center as we watch her battle her family over her non-Jewish boyfriend and their desire for her to marry a rich Jewish boy whose father can help rescue her brother. In the end, it’s a compelling portrait of a rebellious, headstrong young woman caught in several impossible double binds at once.

Closeness is the only film mentioned here to have had the benefit of a premiere at Cannes. Though it won the FIPRESCI Prize in the Un Certain Regard section, Balagov received severe criticism for one aspect of his film: there’s a scene where Ilana’s boyfriend and his pals watch a grainy VHS tape of Chechen rebels slowly killing captured Russian soldiers. The tape is real, it’s stomach-turning, and some critics complained that the filmmaker violated an unspoken rule in springing a snuff film on his audience unawares. Balagov replied that he included the tape because he saw it as a teenager and feels that it captures the cruelty and violence of that era. In any case, the scene was not cut before the film’s showing in St. Petersburg.

An unreconstructed homo Sovieticus spies on his neighbors in Sella Turcica, a drama by Yusup Razykov.

If North Caucasus isn’t the likeliest spot for an upsurge in independent cinema, how about northern Siberia? That’s where much of Costas Marsan’s engrossing, atmospheric crime drama My Murderer (aka My Killer) takes place—in Yakutia, the largest territorial and administrative region in the world as well as the largest subject of the Russian Federation. A meeting place of Russia and Asia, the area preserves Yakut culture and the Yakutian language, both of which are woven into the dramatic fabric of My Murderer. With forty percent of its land mass inside the Arctic Circle, Yakutia also contains some spectacular landscapes that at times recall those of Zvyagintsev’s Leviathan, which was filmed in northern Russia far to the west of Marsan’s film.

A graduate of Yakut State University, Marsan and screenwriters Svetlana Taayko and Maria Nakhodkina derived their narrative from “The Case on Lake Sisara,” a story by Yakut writer Egor Neymohov. The tale begins with its feet planted firmly in genre: a young detective named Djulus (a strong performance by handsome Vyacheslav Lavernov) is assigned to investigate the murder of a young woman. He finds a suspect who confesses, but eventually inconsistencies emerge that prompt Djulus to dig further, even without the support of his superiors. The investigation leads to a gold miners’ camp on the remote shores of the river Lena, where crimes like illegal mining and gold trafficking are prevalent.

While the story follows the basics of detective fiction with classical fidelity, it does so in a way that establishes Marsan as a director of distinctive gifts. Russian critics have compared the stylistic mood he creates to Wong Kar-wai and Marsan’s way of personalizing noir tropes to the likes of Vertigo and Mulholland Drive. For this critic, the film that kept coming to mind was Christopher Nolan’s Insomnia, with its seductive intertwining of dogged sleuthing and striking Northern landscapes. Whether he chooses to continue working in Siberia or venture further afield, My Murderer marks Marsan as a director to watch.

A policeman’s murder investigation uncovers illegal mining and gold trading in Costas Marsan’s My Murderer, an atmospheric crime drama from northern Siberia.

Distance and Dysfunction

Two other films that engaged the FIPRESCI group (and were particular favorites of Russian critics) also gave a vivid sense of Russia’s human and geographic expanse. Though their tones and stylistic approaches couldn’t be more different, both imaginatively explore the intersection of social stresses and family dysfunction.

The capaciously titled How Victor “the Garlic” Took Alexey “the Stud” to the Nursing Home, a striking debut by director of cinematography turned director Alexander Khant, turns a lifelong father/son disconnect into an antic road comedy. Twentysomething Victor “the Garlic” (Evgeniy Tkachuk) is a thorough lug, a bullet-headed layabout who loves to get in bar brawls and lives with a wife he doesn’t love, their kid, and her mother.  Though Victor grew up in an orphanage, that doesn’t allow him to escape his filial duties when dear old dad, Alexey “the Stud” (Aleksey Serebryakov), who’s as gnarly and socially derelict as his offspring, suddenly appears, disabled and needful of transport to a distant nursing home.

Father and son wastrels go on the road in How Victor “the Garlic” Took Alexey “the Stud” to the Nursing Home, a satiric comedy by Alexander Khant.

Set to a soundtrack of the Russian gangster rap to which Victor listens, their road trip is alternately hilarious and satirically scathing. (One Russian critic wrote, “Khant manages to depict life outside Moscow exactly as it is: unpleasant, unjust and cynical.” Not a movie the Russian Tourist Board will be promoting, in other words.) By any reckoning, the film’s visual panache and terrific performances, especially by its two well-matched leads, announce Khant as a director of truly impressive talents. Its irreverent comedic energies reminded me of films by the Coen brothers, though its satire thankfully lacks their occasional condescension. And, for my money, it does a better job than Sean Baker’s The Florida Project in reaching the humanity beneath its ill-mannered characters’ surface unpleasantness.

While Khant’s recently unveiled film has just begun its public career, Boris Khlebnikov’s Arrhythmia has already made a mark on the international festival circuit, having debuted at Karlovy Vary where lead Aleksandr Yatsenko won the Best Actor prize. Yatsenko plays Oleg, a committed young paramedic who’s got problems both at home and at work. His wife Katya (Irina Gorbacheva), who works in the hospital emergency room, announces she wants a divorce, having become fed up with how Oleg has allowed his workaholism to destabilize their marriage. Meanwhile, he’s got a new boss at the EMS station who’s a prize jerk with an animus against anyone as gung-ho and single-minded about his work as Oleg.

Social and familial dysfunctions parallel in Boris Khlebikov’s Arrhythmia, the story of two medical workers’ troubled marriage.

As this might suggest, the film’s appeal lies in how it interweaves two narrative strands, the personal and the professional. On one hand, it’s an interesting and provocative look at one corner of the Russian health-care system, where a post-Soviet thirst for professionalism battles the old demons of bureaucracy and incompetence. On the other hand, the film’s depiction of a marriage that keeps stumbling into the grave, then somehow staggering out again, provides a parallel image of cyclical frustrations. Khlebnikov has a very assured realistic style that takes us into both of these worlds with conviction and intimacy. The one reservation that some international critics (this one included) had about Arrhythmia was that, unlike Zvyagintsev’s Loveless, its depiction of a dissolving marriage unnecessarily privileges the male point of view; a more balanced gender perspective almost surely would have proved more dramatically satisfying.

Commercial Promise

On the Colloquium’s last day of screenings, three examples of the current Russian commercial cinema provided a different set of fascinations, ones suggesting that recent strides could be pointing this type of filmmaking toward greater international exposure.

The trio's one costumer, Aleksey Uchitel’s Mathilde, has already had a fair amount of exposure in the Western press, but for neither commercial nor artistic reasons. The lushly mounted period drama concerns an affair that Czar Nicholas II had with a ballerina prior to his coronation and marriage to Alexandra. Because Nicholas has been declared a saint by the Russian Orthodox Church, this depiction of his early love life stirred outrage as well as calls and petitions that the film be banned. Uchitel’s St. Petersburg studio was firebombed in September, prior to the film’s release. At his Q&A session, the director expressed bafflement that Mathilde could unleash such passions before anyone had seen it.

That reaction is understandable, since from any conventional political perspective the film is entirely innocuous. Like various Europudding productions of yore, or a bodice-ripper directed by Ken Russell for the Hallmark Channel, it is all heavy-breathing romance and court intrigue, swooning camerawork and elaborately staged set pieces in locations including the Dormition Cathedral, the Kremlin, various palaces, and the Bolshoi and Mariinsky Theatres. The production design and Nadezhda Vasileva’s seven thousand costumes are genuinely eye-popping; I don’t know that so much gold has been seen on screen since Elizabeth Taylor’s Cleopatra conquered Rome. As for why the film has provoked such a reaction, critic Anton Dolin noted, “This year marks the one-hundredth anniversary of the Russian Revolution, and we have absolutely no films about it.” Perhaps Mathilde was the closest Russian cinema could come to touching that third rail.

A real-life outer space crisis of the 1980s provides the drama in Salyut 7, which displays Russia’s current proficiency in special effects and IMAX 3D.

Outer space was the reference point shared by the other two commercial films. The one with a historical basis, Klim Shipenko’s Salyut 7, tells of a real-life 1985 space mission that nearly ended in disaster. The Salyut 7, a space station in orbit around earth, stops responding to signals from below. A rescue attempt sends two men into space with the assignment of bringing the Salyut 7 back to life in order to prevent a catastrophic crash. The only downside: the cosmonauts are virtually assured of dying during the mission.

Like Ron Howard’s Apollo 13, Shipenko’s film puts the emphasis on individual heroism and the tense back and forth between outer space and earth, meaning not just mission control but also the families left behind. The film is well mounted in a technical sense, even if the screenplay (credited to Shipenko and four other writers) is too conventional to offer many surprises. Perhaps its most intriguing aspect is the subtext of emotional ambivalence about Russia in the last decade of communism: there’s resentment against the military’s stiff authoritarianism, but that’s mixed with a kind of nostalgia for the times and the heroes the space race produced. While the movie tells a dramatic story, its prospects in the international market are probably limited by the same reality that faced Russia’s lunar program—the Americans got there first.

Outer space has an even more sinister aspect in Attraction, which comes from Fyodor Bondarchuk, who is not only an accomplished director, producer, and actor but also the head of Lenfilm Studio (he’s also the son of Sergei Bondarchuk, whose epic War and Peace was an international art-house hit in the 1960s). Bondarchuk previously made 2013’s Stalingrad, the first non-American film shot in IMAX, and Attraction shows that his interest in cinematic technology continues apace. The story opens when high-school student Yulya (a fine performance by Irina Starshenbaum) and friends go onto a rooftop to watch a meteor shower and instead see an alien spacecraft come crashing into Moscow’s Chertanovo district.

The movie’s focus on teenage characters makes it a kind of YA sci-fi fable, a canny commercial gambit that no doubt helped it become a huge hit when it opened last January. It also has a political edge, with a rioters-versus-martial-law story element (supposedly inspired by the 2013 Biryulyovo anti-immigrant riots) that led one critic to call it “the first anti-fascist film in this genre.” But surely the movie’s most striking element is technical. It boasts wall-to-wall CGI that’s as dazzlingly sophisticated as anything I’ve seen lately from Hollywood.

Teenagers fight an alien invasion of Moscow in the box-office hit Attraction, an example of Russia’s current facility at Hollywood-scale spectacle and CGI.

In the screening’s Q&A session, Bondarchuk said that the advances in Russian CGI had come in the last five years and were continuing to develop rapidly. The movie looks, had it been made made in Hollywood, as if it would cost well north of $100 million, so when one of its makers said it cost $6 million, I said, “Excuse me—you said $60 million?” He said no, “$6 million.” That achievement alone deserves the world’s attention, and could well presage a much brighter future for Russia’s commercial cinema.

Conclusions

The Colloquium’s final event was a roundtable discussion in which the FIPRESCI critics offered their impressions of what they’d seen and discussed them with the filmmakers and Russian journalists. The discussion was moderated by Andrei Plakhov, who did a superb job in organizing the Colloquium, conducting its Q&As, and generally playing host to the visiting critics.

Naturally, the critics had different favorites among the films presented, but to the basic questions the Russians were asking—are these films as a group worthy, and do they merit wider international attention?—the answer in both cases was a resounding yes. The next question—how can that greater exposure be achieved?—required and received more complex answers.

I had two thoughts to offer, both relating to the reality that streaming services like Netflix in America now offer different avenues for the exposure of foreign films than the traditional festival/art-house/DVD model. Given that, it seems to me the way films are labeled and marketed might be profitably changed. For example, while Closeness and Arrhythmia would necessarily remain art films, My Killer and How Victor “the Garlic” Took Alexey “the Stud” to the Nursing Home could be presented as genre films: a suspense thriller and an offbeat comedy, respectively.

I also wondered if maybe the time has come to reconsider and reinstate the practice of dubbing certain foreign films. Though as a young critic I disdained the practice on aesthetic grounds, in recent years the resistance to reading subtitles seems to have grown exponentially, especially among younger viewers. So perhaps having dubbed versions, especially of the genre films just named and the commercial movies mentioned above, could help expand their audiences, and indeed create new audiences for certain foreign films.

The FIPRESCI Colloquium on Russian Cinema concluded with a roundtable discussion at Lenfilm Studios (Godfrey Cheshire, in white scarf, is speaking at the far end of the table).

After the discussion, one of the producers of Attraction came up to me and said he appreciated my point about languages. He said that for his next big commercial movie he’s thinking about shooting both Russian and English versions. But, he said, I didn’t mention another thing that could help bring international audiences to Russian movies: movie stars. Could I see Brad Pitt coming to Russia to make a movie?

There’s a question with a future.

Godfrey Cheshire is a New York-based critic who has written extensively about international cinemas. He currently reviews for RogerEbert.com.

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