A Little Further East...

in 34th Moscow International Film Festival

by Frédéric Ponsard

The 34th Moscow International Film Festival took place in June, between the Cannes and the Venice film festivals, and suffered somewhat from this competition. Karlovy Vary, at virtually the same time, may also represent an obstacle to having a strong and original competition. However, this year, Kyril Razlogov managed to find some interesting films. Among the 17 in competition, five (including three Russian productions) were world premieres, with all the others being either international or European premieres. The Moscow Film Festival retains its status as a Class A event, and its value is in its moving of the map of world cinema a little further east. Festival-goers were able to discover competing films from Estonia, Hungary, Bulgaria, Finland, Croatia, Poland, and of course Russia. Following is a small review of the current cinema from the eastern side of Europe offered.

We start with Team Russia, the largest, which consisted of films spanning three very different movie genres. The first, and perhaps most remarkable, is The Horde (Orda). Andrei Proshkin takes us back in time and space. The film recreates the middle of the 14th century, the time of the Golden Horde. Taidula, the mother of the Great Khan, suddenly goes blind, and nobody can cure her. Her last hope lies with the Metropolitan of Moscow, Saint Alexius. He is famous for his ability to perform miracles. In truth, Alexius himself is skeptical about the possibility of performing a miracle and puts his hope in the will of God. The Khan promises to burn Moscow if the Bishop does not cure his mother, and Alexius is left with nowhere to turn except to try and work a miracle. This long journey will be his loss before being his salvation. The great merit of the film is to plunge into the Dark Ages, and into violent and dark acts, with the filmmaker not trying to embellish a brutal, bloody and barbaric reality. The spectacle seems perfect in this respect, the costumes are unobstrusive, and everything seems of its time. At no time does the movie seek to deceive nor to embellish its story and its characters. The staging is full of talent and Proshkin gives us both a fable and a spiritual epic tale which avoids the pitfalls of long battles found in many historical films.

We remain a lot more circumspect regarding the UFO that is for us Gulf Stream Under the Iceberg (Golfstrim pod aysbergom), directed by Yevgeny Pashkevich. It’s the story of Lilith, the supposed first wife of Adam, quoted in the Talmud and Kabbalah. It is a real aesthetic and narrative concoction that was an ordeal for many, even among members of the jury. A Russo-Latvian co-production, the film took years to make, and after viewing it, we wonder not only why, but also how this project was made, as failure is obvious.

Much more accessible is Rita’s Last Fairy Tale (Poslednyaya skazka Rity), a fantasy film from Renata Litvinova. A true icon in Russia, protean artist and jack-of-all-trades, she delivers a movie that borrows from surrealism and poetry, in which she plays an angel of death who will accompany a woman from life to the other side. Her faith in cinema is certain: it lifts the arms of Soviet statues frozen in the past (in this case one of Yuri Gagarin in a final scene is particularly successful), happily stages funerals where Fellini and Kusturica might include their children, and has cars go through walls in a very smooth way.

80 Million (80 milionów) by Polish director Waldemar Krzystek returns to the pivotal period in the early ’80s when the Solidarity trade union had become the main instrument of resistance against the communist government. We are in Wroclaw before the introduction of martial law, and follow the tribulations of a small group of trade unionists who play a dirty trick on the authorities with the help of the Catholic Church. The storyline is better than the film, the staging of which is less than vibrant. The characters are often stereotypes — with wooden lines for the bad guy — but in the end some sincerity shows through. Despite the film’s didacticism, it is interesting to see how history has been written, and how cinema can show it. The reconstruction of these grey years is done well, and the director even dares to include some moments of welcome comedy.

Peeter Simm’s film Lonely Island (Üksik saar) is a joint production from Latvia, Estonia, and Belarus. It is a film that brings together a dozen characters who live in a small provincial town and whose love lives, friendships and professional interests intersect. The film has no anchor point and it is hard to find resonance in each personal story. It gives the impression of a clumsy film that is too impressionistic to understand the real issues. The director simply juxtaposes slices of life and leaves his characters open without ever trying to delve deeper.

Another film from Finland Naked Harbour (Vuosaari) adopts the same narrative structure. But in this case, Aku Louhimies succeeds by delivering a homogeneous film, in which each individual story echoes the others. He lays out an array of love stories; of fragile, mismatched couples in the frantic search for tenderness, and suffering a lack of love. It’s a magnificent achievement which avoids the pitfall of sentimentality.

From central Europe, two very different films represented Hungary and Croatia. The first was that of a long-familiar name, István Szabó, who returned to centre-stage with The Door (Az ajtó), an adaptation of a novel by Magda Szabó (Szabó is an extremely common surname in Hungary). This is the story of an unconventional and uncompromising servant who enters the service of a couple, the wife of which is a writer. Gradually she discovers the woman’s past. The film has the advantage of having Helen Mirren at the top of her game. She marvels at this servant’s extraordinary clothes. The film unfortunately offers no surprises, with an aesthetic that is a little old-fashioned and a structure which provides very little revelation in a story that could have been made forty years ago. There’s know-how, but this work is ultimately far too academic.

In contrast, the film of Croatian Branko Schmidt, Vegetarian Cannibal (Ljudozder Vegetarijanac), borrows its aesthetic from television, with many scenes shot on the shoulder, nervous and syncopated. It is the story of a gynaecologist, his small time affairs, compromises and illegal abortions, without any kind of morality, and in the name of the God Money. Unfortunately the film overstretches its limits. It appears to have primarily been made for television. The cinematography is often sloppy and the lighting random, even though the film borrows an almost documentary-like appearance as it follows the unscrupulous doctor’s slow descent.

The last film of this region that we will discuss is July (Krapetz) by Bulgarian director Kiril Stankov, which draws heavily on Thelma and Louise. Unfortunately neither the story nor the direction can compete. Two hippie women with no work and no men hook up with a third on the shores of the Black Sea. There are of course a few implicit allusions to post-communist society which has still not recovered from its past, but the pace of the film does not allow the viewer to focus on the characters.