As Time Goes By

in 32nd Cairo International Film Festival

by Magda Mihailescu

The Vanished EmpireI will not hesitate to say that Karen Shakhnazarov’s The Vanished Empire (Ischeznuvshaya imperia) was one of the best films of the 32nd Edition of the Cairo International Film Festival. It’s pretty difficult to understand why the International Jury has avoided it, but this is another problem. It takes more than a glance to recognize Shakhnazarov’s fingerprints and, as well, the new nuance emerging from the depicted world on the screen. Have we seen just another nostalgic story from the series the Russian director has so far signed? (We’re from the Jazz, Winter Evening in Gagry, Day of the Full Moon). Not at all. I think there are three Vanished Empires in the film: an archaeological one, the ruins of Khorezm, known as ‘City of Winds’ (the ancient Khiva, at the border of Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan) whose remote image troubles our main character, Serghei, the son of a scientist family; the second is Soviet Union itself, in the 70s, when the plot is settled. As for the third, we’ll find it out only in the last part of the film.                

In spite of many moments of cheerfulness, the overall tone is of dissatisfaction, a yearning for something without name. A growing sense of anxiety (social and cultural) is floating around. Apparently, Serghei and his friends don’t have great expectations. A pair of Wrangler blue jeans, albums by Pink Floyd and The Rolling Stones, bought on the black market, lead to an immense pleasure, especially whenever all these treasures represent the most delectable and convincing pieces of success before the girls. Maybe this is The Vanished Empire, once a country of distinguished intellectuals. The political lessons about Marx and Lenin pushed the youth to negotiate the old books of the grand father for cash, in order to buy Wranglers and so on.                    

We are been both amused and sad when Serghei finds out that the precious Rolling Stones, offered to his beloved Liuda was, actually, Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake! The young man’s life seems to be a serial of loss, and there is even nothing in particular to create major conflicts. This makes the film so impressive: all the problems are coming out without seeming to be grave, the responsibilities arising as adulthood approaches are ignored, but Serghei, the rebel and young ‘girl killer’, loses little by little the fiancee, the mother, the friends. The fateful decision was too late. Suddenly, the film cuts decades into the unknown future. The Soviet Union does not exist any longer. We have no idea about any changes. Shakhnazarov performed this tour de force: one day, at an airport, the former good friend and rival Stepan, now almost an old man, bumps into Sergei. They hardly recognised each other. Until the end, the last remains are only in voice off, like being embarrassed to face the audience. The news is very poor, just common, domestic details. We realise that true Vanished Empire is the wasted life, with it’s impossible dreams, trickling away as sand blown in the wind in that remote Khorezm, City of Winds.          

Edited by Steven Yates