Tuesday July 10, 9:30pm
The Admiral (2008)
Director: Andrey Kravchuk
Starring: Konstantin Khabenskiy, Elizaveta Boyarskaya, Sergey Bezrukov
Tuesday July 17, 9:30pm
Director: Andrey Konchalovskiy
Starring: Yuliya Vysotskaya, Irina Rozanova, Aleksandr Domogarov
Tuesday July 24, 9:30pm
Paper Soldier (2008)
Director: Aleksei German Ml.
Starring: Chulpan Khamatova, Merab Ninidze, Anastasiya Sheveleva
Tuesday July 31, 9:30pm
The Mermaid (2007)
Director: Anna Melikyan
Starring: Mariya Shalaeva, Evgeniy Tsyganov, Mariya Sokova
The cinema has been an integral part of each diverse age for more than a hundred years now, but there are few nations where it been more crucial than in Russia. In the land that has had a convulsive relationship with history – where the Romanovs were replaced by the Communists, where brutal wars raged, where the Communists were replaced by the oligarchs – the movies have spoken in wondrous and compelling ways.
Whether it’s Sergei Eisenstein and Dziga Vertov, who came of age during a revolution and subsequently had the same impact on celluloid, or the metaphysical enquiries of Andrei Tarkovsky and now Andrey Zvyagintsev’s moral examinations, Russian filmmakers have often endured creatively even when the prevailing system is literally against them.
Since the end of the Soviet one party state approximately two decades ago and the subsequent brutal realignment to free-market capitalism, Russia’s directors have had to struggle against changing circumstances and a renewed focus on commercialism. But in recent years there’s been a steady increase in intriguing works and promising names emerging from Moscow, Saint Petersburg and beyond.
In July SBS is a screening a program that provides an introduction to the now vast and varied cinematic output of Russia. Screening on consecutive Tuesdays, the four features – The Admiral (July 10), Gloss (July 17), Paper Soldier (July 24), and The Mermaid (July 31) – describe a country that is trying to deal with both a complex, multi-layered past and an uncertain future. If nothing else, it’s clear that Russia’s current filmmakers have no shortage of subjects to turn their cameras on.
Andrey Kravchuk’s 2008 historic romance, The Admiral, begins by fictionally intertwining together various strands of Russian cinematic history, with a recreated 1960s shoot for director Sergei Bondarchuk’s vast State-produced adaptation of War and Peace being interrupted due to the unwelcome noble past of an extra. Fedor Bondarchuk, himself a leading Russian filmmaker, plays his father, while the ageing former aristocrat is revealed as Anna Timireva (Elizaveta Boyarskaya), who during the Russian Revolution was the love of Alexander Kolchak (Konstantin Khabensky), the former Imperial Russian Navy admiral who commanded the ill-fated anti-communist white Russian forces.
Kravchuk’s film is not without comparison to David Lean’s adaptation of Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago, but the tragedy here is of a man no longer in touch with the times. Played with ramrod dedication by Khabensky, Kolchak can’t understand the spread of revolution or the strength of his feeling for Anna, who like him is married to someone else. The film is lushly executed, but at its centre is a man who believes he must deny himself for the greater good. It’s a fascinating contrast.
Exile, whether voluntary or otherwise, has been one of constants for Russians artists, but few have experienced it as strikingly as Andrei Konchalovsky has. In the 1960s the young filmmaker, who came from a line of artistic voices, struggled against Soviet-era censorship, but success in the 1970s with the likes of Siberiade somehow took him to Hollywood in the 1980s, where he made a powerful, primal thriller with Runaway Train before overseeing the farcically daft Tango & Cash with Sylvester Stallone and Kurt Russell. (That sound you could hear was Eisenstein turning over in his grave.)
Konchalovsky returned to working in Russia, and in 2007 made the black comedy Gloss, the story of provincial seamstress, Galya (Yuliya Vysotskaya), whose ambitions take her to Moscow and a cruelly ambivalent fashion industry that judges her not beautiful enough but marginally useful. As Galya does in fashion, her former boyfriend Vitya (Ilya Itsaev) does with official corruption and crime, rising through the ranks and gaining exposure to power. Their differing worlds eventually meet, and Konchalovsky skewers the corrosiveness of ambition even as he enjoys the surface glamour.
Alternate realms somehow aligned to our own are key signifiers of 20th century Russian art, whether in the surreal novels of Mikhail Bulgakov or the otherworldly landscapes of Tarkovsky’s magisterial contemplation, and there’s a return to that in Aleksei German Jr’s oddball comic drama Paper Soldier. The 2008 feature is about a doctor, Danya (Merab Ninidze), who is trying to hold himself together as he cares for the young cosmonauts training to be the first man in space in 1961.
Philip Kaufman’s The Right Stuff described the parallel American program with buoyant self-belief and wry humour, but Danya is given to self-recrimination and hallucinations, especially once he takes a mistress at mission control in Kazakhstan behind the back of his Moscow-based wife. Danya struggles against the pragmatism of those around him, including the acceptance of possible death that pervades his young charges. In a film where the camera challenges conventional perspectives, it’s only natural that he eventually encounters a vision of his late father, a surgeon who like so many died in a camp following a Joseph Stalin purge. “Maybe,” the late father reasons, “what you’re doing contradicts your human nature.”
Anna Melikyan brings a welcome female perspective to the season’s final entry, the 2007 fantasy comedy The Mermaid. The director’s second feature, which was Russia’s entry for Best Foreign Film at the 2009 Academy Awards, is a modern day retelling of the Hans Christian Andersen fairytale The Little Mermaid. Distinctly separate from Disney’s compliant animated take, Melikyan’s movie is about Alisa (Mariya Shalaeva), a young woman from Russia’s interior whose disappointment at the world (represented by her mother) takes the form of silence and slowly becomes the ability to make wishes come true.
The picture has a suitably dream-like milieu, and when Alisa gets to Moscow she finds her own version of the Prince to save from drowning. Aleksandr (Evgeniy Tsyganov) is an advertising executive, and after Alisa saves his life he unknowingly comes to assume that the young woman with green hair is just his new cleaning lady. In this charmingly energetic movie, Alisa finds herself on billboards, aiding Aleksandr’s campaigns, and if this carefully designed and photographed world doesn’t quite speak to the everyday, then it’s just confirming an abiding tradition of Russian cinema.