The Empire Strikes Back

in 43rd Moscow International Film Festival

by Vassilis Kechagias

Every time one travels to Moscow they realize the effort to get closer and closer to the West, at least in the “joys” offered by its consumerist model, but also the strong inclination to be closed in oneself, in terms of self-sufficiency, but also in relation to one’s past. One instantly realizes this as soon as they cross the threshold of the Film Festival, a strange alloy of Cannes and… socialist memory. Even upon entering the venues… The large central hall of the site which hosts both the opening and closing ceremonies: grandiose, obviously inherited from its longstanding past, its “red corridor” pulsating with impressive appearances, with extreme clothing choices, sparkling, constantly photographed, with the reception and award nights trained according to the Oscar’s method. You turn, glance away, and meet the offices of the historic “Isvestia”, dark, with the relief of Lenin looking across from his children. Pained; With an understanding of the necessary developments? Even greater is the surprise when, during the awards, one sees the Golden Saint George in the hands of the winner and the best film, but also the other prizes. Besides, the most applauded film and awarded by the public was “The Man of God”,  a work for Saint Nektarios which was produced by the Holy Monastery of Vatopedi, by the hand of the Serbian Jelena Popovic. Moscow has long honoured its religious past, but it does not forget its political obligations to its former “close ones”. Saint George will end up in the hands of a mediocre Romanian film (#dogpoopgirl, 2021 by Andrei Hutuleak), with the Jury consisting of three Russians, a Brazilian director and the “internet” Felipe Mendoza presiding over the distance. Of course, in the streets and shops of the capital — and obviously the whole country — the “Western man” from a distance and the like seem to have given up their pandemic demands, for the sake of Sputnik. One can get vaccinated wherever they want (at a mall, for example), since people can move around free of prohibitions and precautions. Catering to the eyes of the West, they leave the cinemas half full (anyway, the relevant saying with the glasses is Czech), as well as the stadiums. The cinema hall, where most of the Festival takes place, is also one standing from socialist years, with a relative mosaic of socialist realism, like a crown on its head, “absorbed” by the housing of a classic luxury big cinema.

In this context, it is not surprising that the two films that won the interest of the FIPRESCI Commission were Aleksey Fedorchenko’s good film The Last Darling Bulgaria (Последняя «Милая Болгария», 2021) and The Time of Indifference (Gli indifferenti, 2020) by Leonardo Guerra Seragnoli. The first is based on Michail Zochenko’s book “Before Sunrise”, while the second draws its theme from Alberto Moravia and a novel, already remade cinematically by Maseli, in 1964. Here is a first coincidence, however not the key one. The Russian author, by pressing on the exclusion of its author from the Soviet regime, brings to the fore exactly what today’s Russia is trying to absorb, perhaps ignoring how much it costs in its time: in lives, in creation, in “truth”, finally. The film confronts the cinematic era of Eisenstein, uses as a living persona the once beloved, later infamous Soviet director and steps on him to produce, with various inversions, the atmosphere of a new formalism. On the opposite side, Seragnoli completely renews the atmosphere of Moravia, keeping only the nucleus of the “catalyst” in the social reactions of the bourgeois society, which is rapidly declining. A western type of formalism (a bit of Visconti, a bit of Antonioni), with memories of the Roman Empire, now handed over to the new “conquerors” — investors, in this case the Russians. The decor is inspired from times of fallen aristocracy, with an opera set and visual creations of a greatness, fixed in the past. Only now their worn-out bodies and morbid sexual manifestations are renewing the work, at the same time giving rise to the bankruptcy of Western civilization. The past and the decline, two other common constants of both Fedorchenko’s and Seragnoli’s films, also indicate the difference. The Italian, as a young man, finds a way to detach the works from sterile descriptions and turn them into a matter of the present, while the Russian still is to try to do the same. And FIPRESCI always gives a lead to fresh cinema and young directors.

Vassilis Kechagias
Edited by Savina Petkova