Characters and Circumstances: Notes On the Competition Program of the 31st Moscow IFF

in 31st Moscow International Film Festival

by Christina Stojanova

If a common aesthetic denominator of the competition films, presented at the 31st Moscow International Film Festival (June 19-28, 2009) is to be found, it would be the predominance of mythos (plot) over ethos (character). In other words, whether good or bad, characters suffered more as a a consequence of an act or happenstance outside of them.

The sense of entrapment in these films was additionally enhanced by the prevalent arrangement of the incidents as a guest of sorts, usually leading nowhere and leaving the protagonists either dead or much worse off.

As is to be expected in this line of thought, the most intriguing films in competition were Russian (Aleksandr Proshkin’s Miracle/ Chudo; Nikolai Dostal’s Petya On The Way to Heaven/ Petya po doroge v tsarstvie nebesnoe ), or in Russian (Kira Muratova’s FIPRESCI winner Melody for a Barrel-Organ (Melodiya dlya sharmanki), made in Ukraine. These three highly awarded films were closely followed by strong works, made in Georgia (Mediator/ Mediatori, dir. Dito Tsintsadze, co-produced with Germany), in Hungary (Prank/ Tréfa, dir. Péter Gárdos); in Bulgaria (Crayfish/ Razi, dir. Ivan Tscherkelov) and in Poland (Little Moscow/ Mala Moskwa, dir. Waldemar Krzystek).

Certainly, the Iranian film (Bibi, dir. Hassan Yektapanah), the Israeli (Burning Mooki / Mooki bo’era, dir. Lena Chaplin and Slava Chaplin) and the Italian (As God Commands/ Come Dio comanda, dir.Gabiele Salvatores) stood their ground both professionally and artistically as original variations of the same aesthetic approach, featuring characters emasculated by unforgiving social and political forces, roughing up their lives. Even the least interesting films (the Japanese, the Korean and the especially the American) were playing up the role of historical and social circumstance at the expense of their characters’ psychological make up or free will.

The Three Major Films

Miracle (Chudo)

One of the competition favourites, the Russian Miracle, could be reviewed as a paradigmatic example of the aesthetic features, mentioned above. Set in the faithful days around the Soviet Communist Party 20th Congress in 1956 and Khruschev’s secret speech exposing Stalin’s atrocities, it tells the unusual story of a girl named Zoya and is based on an allegedly authentic occurrence in the town of Samara (former Kyibishev), known as the “Standing of Zoya”. A handsome factory worker (Polina Kutepova), a loyal member of the Young Communist League (or the Komsomol) and a militant atheist who forces her mother to take all the icons off the walls and to the local church, she turns into a motionless statue after attempting a sacrilegious dance during the Christmas lent with the icon of St. Nicholas – the only one left behind – known by Christian Orthodox believers as the Miracle-Maker. This event has a ghastly ripple effect, causing death and major disturbance throughout the seedy industrial settlement, throwing the Party and the KGB into a deep crisis, and revealing in the process their unholy alliances with the clergy and the media. Four months later, around Easter-time, the crisis gets suddenly resolved in a truly deus ex machina style by Chairman Khrushchev himself when his personal plane makes an emergency landing in the area. Following a higher clergy’s advice, the Chairman’s officials find a ‘male virgin’, the only one capable of bringing Zoya back to life by wiggling the icon out of her hands. However, since during her standing she has herself turned into a passionate believer and a miracle-maker, Zoya is sent to a mental hospital as a precaution against any further spreading of ‘Christian superstition’, thus marking symbolically the limits of Khrushchev’s liberalism.

As in any allegorical discourse, double entendre is the name of the game here: on one hand, the miraculous event takes a life of its own, triggering a chain of unusual occurrences and coincidences. On the other hand, however – not unlike Khrushchev’s proverbial ‘liberalization’ – the miracle sets off a major exercise in ideological hypocrisy. By hook or by crook, the cynics in power put to a severe test the resilience of the believers (or the dissidents) to act as moral and rational agents vis-a-vis the miracle.

The KGB agent’s active tampering, for example, with what the regional journalist Nikolai (Konstantin Khabensky) believes to be his noble quest for the truth of Zoya’s Standing shakes this philandering and somewhat spoilt news-maker out of his self-delusional complacency. And forces him to realize his true cynical nature, disguised as that of a believer. After all, it was him that Zoya was waiting for before impatiently grabbing St Nicholas’s – his namesake’s – icon for her ill-fated dance. After the spiritual demise of the priest and the journalist,  the only successful quest for the truth – most likely due to its divine serendipity – is that of Zoya herself, and therefore her transformation of a cynic into believer is most severely punished… 

Melody for a Barrel-Organ (Melodiya dlya sharmanki)

The FIPRESCI winner, Melody for a Barrel-Organ/ Pesnya dlja sharmanki (2008) by Kra Muratova, the veteran enfant terrible of the Ukrainian and Russian/ Soviet cinema, is yet another baroque winter tale, this time around situated in a contemporary, non-identified post-Soviet city (Kiev?). Structured like a Renaissance picaresque – a satiric quest with a moral message but with a tragic twist—it features two orphaned children as the impoverished rascals or the picaros and their doomed voyage through a corrupt society.

Following the death of their mother, pre-teens Nikita and Aliona – in an attempt to avoid being sent to different orphanages by the soulless Social Services – embark on a search for their long-gone respective fathers. It is Christmas time, it is cold, and the two, far from picture-perfect children (sickishly pale and somewhat overweight) are on their own in the world of post-Soviet capitalism, whose savage reality is ever so slightly but very effectively suspended for the film. The archetypal symbols of modern speed and greed – a railway station, a casino and a supermarket – are therefore ominously defamiliarized by the tight frame composition, and the perennially drifting artificial snow, along with the grotesque exaggeration of characters and acting, enhance their disconcerting effect.

As a matter of fact, none of the people the children encounter in their macabre quest are really wicked, but just preoccupied with pursuing the good life – blabbing on cell phones, sleeping in luxury lounges, eating, but mostly spending money in casinos and supermarkets – to really notice the two destitute children. And those who do notice them are either, like the nouveau rich couple who wants to adopt Nikita, too good to be true, or too real to be good, like the woman who disappears with the five-hundred Euro banknote they have accidentally found… Or too harsh, like overzealous supermarket managers, who daunt Alyona for stealing food for her starving brother. In the end, while Alyona’s misfortune is being sealed by criminal charges, little Nikita dies of exposure in the attic of a house under reconstruction just hours before being discovered by the contractors, whose foreman appears to be Alyona’s missing father…

As in every Christmas tale, salvation through a happy coincidence seems always within a reach, but as in the classical 19th century melodrama is somehow always put off by bad timing or bad communication. Maybe in an attempt to make up for this endemic injustice and demonstrate that the most important things in life are often lost in the details we have no patience for, Muratova’s narrative is usually very detailed and its pace – deliberately slow… Obviously this is her way of making us engage with the tragic story evolving on screen. If not as citizens then at least as compassionate and thoughtful viewers and listeners… 

Petya on The Way to Heaven (Petya po doroge v tsarstvie nebesnoe)

The eponymous quest of Petya “on his way to Heaven” is an exercise in the much tooted post-modern irony in presenting an important event from the unusual perspective of the village fool. In spite of the title, there is no quest per se in Dostal’s film, where Petya (Egor Pavlov), a handsome young man with the looks of a movie star and the intelligence of a five year old, goes about his weird daily routine imagining to be the traffic controller of the remote Siberian town of Kandalaksha – a game everyone around happily joins in – until one day, being mistaken for a forced-labour camp fugitive, he is accidentally shot to death. And there is no explicit message to boot this pseudo-quest either, as the film offers unexpectedly rosy-cheeked picture of the town, whose inhabitants are predominantly KGB personnel and other employees of the newly built Gulag camp.

The story takes place in the fateful days before and after Stalin’s death on March 5, 1953 but its timing does not seem to deeply affect the action. The fleeting references to a number of serious, even tragic social and political issues that have otherwise deeply marked this era are offered in a deliberately non-engaging manner. As a result, the society looks as homogeneous and united as a Socialist Realist poster from the period, with auspicious historical tensions removed from the almost plot-less narrative.

Dostal’s style however relies heavily on the viewer’s ability to imagine the untold – and deliberately left outside of the frame – dark side of this sun-lit idyll, and draw the necessary conclusions from the sharp contrast. Unfortunately, his sophisticated tongue-in-cheek sarcasm, targeting the omnipresent human complacency, propensity for self-delusion in the name of the good life and conformity to any and all circumstances – which ultimately cause the death of Petya, the film’s only innocent soul – might be lost on viewers without preliminary knowledge of the tragic intricacies of Soviet history.

Against the Intricacies of East European History

The competition films from the other post-Communist countries presented a variety of emasculated characters up against overwhelmingly hostile circumstances and evil protagonists – historical as well as contemporary – uncannily similar to those discussed above. With its propensity to resolve grave social tensions onto the private terrain of home and family, melodrama remains the most effective vehicle for displaying the destructive, even murderous stand off between the individual and his overwhelming environment.

Little Moscow (Mala Moskwa)

The Polish melodrama Little Moscow tackles ages-old tension between Russia as historical usurper and Poland as a perennial victim of its imperial appetites, and mediates it through the impossible love affair of a Russian officer’s wife and a Polish officer. As is to be expected, the chain of tragic coincidences, shaping their misfortunes, is set in motion by the KGB, the strictest custodian of the Soviet state interests and those of its military contingent, stationed on the ‘fraternal’ Polish soil. Obviously, ‘national security’ considerations override far and wide the individual rights of the two lovers to live and have a child together, and even those of the cuckolded husband, willing to let his beloved wife go. Yet when she tenaciously refuses to comply with the KGB representative’s ‘advice’ to surrender her love in the name of her country, the hell breaks loose as the authorities fear an unwarranted precedent.

Following the logic of the genre, the destinies of the three main characters (by the way, gorgeous looking) are sealed by bad timing and frustrated communications due to Warsaw pact invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. And although some forty years later the cause of the woman’s death (a KGB inspired and executed assassination) remains suspected suicide, her daughter – thanks to the noble upbringing of the self-sacrificial Russian husband – finds strength to honour her mother’s passion by forgiving her and by reconciling with her real Polish father.

Prank (Tréfa)

In the exclusively visualized Prank (cinematographer László Seregi), a group of rebellious teen-age boys of a private Austro-Hungarian Catholic school try to negotiate their individual rights and freedoms in a similarly restricted and repressive environment but their timid attempts at bildungs-like quests are eventually stifled.

The kids are caught in the crossfire between two opposite pedagogic camps, epitomized by two of their younger tutors: while the ‘good’ one is an ardent proponent of liberal pedagogic ideas, based on personal freedom and responsibility, it is the ‘bad’ one – an open supporter of corporal punishment and nasty tactics, pitting the kids against each other – who eventually prevails. Yet, according to the film, the most sinister reason for his notoriety is that his methods are quite in tune with the looming spirit of doom – enhanced by references to the recent sinking of Titanic – on the eve of the Great War and the demise of Austro-Hungary. Eerily reminiscent in tenor and time-setting of Michael Haneke latest Palme D’Ore-winning The White Ribbon (Das weisse band, 2009), implying that the malice of children is the surest sign of pending social depravity, Prank  meticulously examines how moral and physical callousness brings out the worst in the students, making them turn against their teachers, each other and ultimately kill the weakest one in their midst.

Though the Post-Communist Wilderness

On the background of the ensnaring laws of destructive historical determinism, the reasons for the moral and physical ruin of the personages from Crayfish and Mediator are not so clear. Unlike the ill-fated lovers (Little Moscow) and the unredeemable kids (Prank), the characters of these contemporary works succumb willingly to the forces of evil – that is, to the proliferating criminal structures, national and international, and their henchmen.

Mediator (Mediatori)

In Mediator, the eponymous protagonist is the ex-officio messenger of a vaguely mentioned secret services conglomerate in hot pursuit of a renegade insider, and appears as a deus ex machina only at a few key moments to clarify the otherwise rather intricate plot. The narrative features another half a dozen hardened criminals, foreign and local, as well as members of the Tbilisi police, involved in a Russian-doll-like conspiracy, at the very bottom of which are the Georgians. The only incorrupt soul seems to be the local police inspector, but he is hastily taken off the case by his boss – an obvious accomplice of the mysterious Mediator – under the pretext that he does not speak English. Overall, this skillfully put together narrative reveals a rather diverse portrait of Tbilisi demimonde. The criminal ring leader – the Georgian connection so to speak – is an older ex-pat in charge of a young man and a woman, surprisingly intelligent and good looking, who are allotted the dirtiest job of torture, dangerous conspiracy and messy killings. There is also the ubiquitous Russian prostitute – a genre fixture – accidentally implicated in one of the killings. And then there is the inspector’s drug-addicted mistress also happens to be the ex-wife of the ex-pat, as well as a few other ordinary citizens involved with the action.

Mediator – with its post-modern nonchalance of a self-reflexive genre redaction, relying on virtuoso narrative techniques of flashbacks and sophisticated re-interpretation of identical episodes  from different points of view –  does not even bother with ethical wherewithal. Instead of ruthless Mafiosi, the film casts the killers as existential victims of dire circumstances, but fails to explain what those are. Indeed, amongst the graffiti-covered dilapidated pre-fab high-rises, the seedy life in and around the capital is not very attractive for young enterprising people, what with chronic unemployment, criminality, and general ennui that the good life is elsewhere – usually far away from Tbilisi, and westward. But these fall far short of building a solid case on behalf of the cold-blooded killers, whose victims all the more are small-time desperados like themselves.

Crayfish (Razi)

Crayfish is arguably the only film under scrutiny here, where the incidents (or the plot) are arranged entirely by the evil protagonists over the head of the two principal characters – otherwise good guys from good families but too lazy, too supercilious or just too inept to find and hold a decent job – fall into a  Mafiosi trap to be used by two Mafiosi-turned-businessmen as crayfish-bait (thereby the film’s title) in a murderous scheme the mistrustful bussinessmen cook up to test one another. Boka (Phillip Avramov) is paid by one of them to make a phone call from a moving train to the driver of a red van when in closest proximity, which unbeknownst to him triggers an explosion, killing the driver who happens to be his best friend Bonza (Valeri Yordanov), hired by the other businessman.

The director depicts with sarcastic gusto the conniving bosses as the source of evil by casting Rangel Vulchanov, one of the best Bulgarian directors from the older generation as the more enterprising of the two. Vulchanov’s antics (he is also a versatile comedian) sit well with the tongue-in-cheek apathy of the two rising stars of Bulgarian cinema, enacting the drama of two close friends whose quest for easy money and lack of real rapport ends up in tragedy.

Alone In the Hostile City


Quite understandably, Bibi – the low-budget Neo-realist story of an elderly Iraqi refugee in Iran and her obsessive pursuit of an ID card for the sole purpose she could be buried one day in a marked grave, which her Iraqi daughter would be able to visit once the war ends – is both generationally and artistically, as well as literally, a world away from the predominantly brooding mood of the films discussed so far, and their intricate metaphors, populated mostly by young, handsome but tormented characters.

Bibi – in the beautifully understated interpretation of Salimeh Rangzan – embarks on her own on an unexpectedly lucid quest for a Muslim woman. Structured as any archetypal voyage through a hostile environment, Bibi’s search for the devout document through the labyrinth of the heavily bureaucratized Iranian immigration system and the treacherous big city falls in line with Odysseus’ travels, Dante’s sojourn through hell and purgatory, and especially with Kafka’s  Joseph K and his ever pending trial. Her guide in this tedious and humiliating journey, or rather series of futile daily trips, is a young tax-driver who is humbled into helping Bibi by her unusual determination and resourcefulness but, after being stalked by police informers, ends up arrested and probably killed for trying to get her a forged ID.

Although the film leaves behind more questions than answers –  hardly surprising bearing in mind the strict Iranian censorship – it is an inspiring essay on human dignity, solidarity and moral resilience, capable of transcending even the harshest social and political circumstances.

As God Commands (Come Dio comanda)

The Italian entry, As God Commands is an emotionally charged story of yet another contemporary quest – or rather, a sentimental journey – of a father and his teenage son who rediscover each other after a series of disastrous events, culminating in the father’s near fatal ailment. What is unusual in this rather intense, not to say hysterical, film is that its narrative falls neatly into two parts that are quite different, even contradictory ideologically and aesthetically. The first half, dominated by a very active plot, could be defined as a horror flick. It introduces a father and son, living on the social and urban margins of a big city. The father is susceptible to white supremacist rant, and teaches his son how to shoot a gun; and how to hate Slavs and Arabs as villainous culprits since they are taking jobs away from native Italians like themselves. The son (very authentically represented by Alvaro Caleca), even writes an essay, praising Hitler for his policies against ethnic minorities to please his father. The chain of calamities is however initiated by a third character – the mentally challenged friend of the family who chases and accidentally kills an attractive teenage girl from the son’s school. The father runs to the rescue but falls suddenly ill, and the son engages in an elaborate cover-up of the crime scene by hiding and then throwing the girl’s corpse into a river in order to protect both his father and the insane perpetrator from the police.

The shorter second part is all about the bond of father and son. Dominated by excessive melodramatic passions and coincidences, it – apart from some brief scenes with the already repentant killer – takes place mostly in the hospital, where, on the wings of their reinforced love, father and son eventually succeed in circumventing the forces of social evil – or what they have maybe mistakenly perceived as such before the initiating brush with death.  The killer conveniently hangs himself so the two of them could now freely bask in the newly found meaning of life undisturbed by memories…   

At the Mercy of Memory

Burning Mooki (Mooki bo’era)

The Israeli film Burning Mooki  is also about a charged family relationship, this time between a mother and son. It however is arguably the only film in competition without an explicit social or moral agenda, and features a protagonist who is not a victim of circumstance but of his own indocile emotions.

The film opens with a phone call Mooki, an overweight and grumpy forty-something family man, receives in his Norwegian home, conveying the news of his mother’s passing in far off Israel. This sad news triggers a flashback to his youth in the 1960s, when his parents and their friends – all Holocaust survivors – were still young and parting hard in an attempt to silence if not to heal their still fresh wounds and sense of agonizing guilt before the ones who never made it. The film is however about the young and slender Mooki and his attraction to his beautiful mother who, after the untimely death of his beloved father, somehow very quickly moves in with the bullish Yanek, rumoured to have collaborated with the Nazis in order to survive. And yet it is Yanek whom his mother passionately loves and who, although well aware of Mooki’s hatred, comes to his rescue at critical moments… Overwhelmed by jealousy and anger, the boy tries hard to strike on his own in love and life but gradually sinks deeper into self-hate and depression. Until one night, drunk and disguised in Nazi uniform, he breaks into his mother’s home and rapes her, thus symbolically evoking the most horrific experience of her generation – the Holocaust. Convinced that it is all her fault, Mooki then flees to Norway in the hopes that distance and time would dissipate the memory of her and of what he has done to her…  Thus Mooki’s decision to attend his mother’s funeral in spite of the disturbed memories, lulled for so long amongst the reefs of his unconscious by denial and alcohol, wraps up nicely the frame narrative, but hardly provides a closure for his demons-ridden past…

Mooki’s story of brave soul-searching resounds with a gripping energy maybe because such confessional narratives about the arduous road to self-knowledge have become a rarity even within the confines of art-house cinema, which tends – as eloquently illustrated by the competition program – to increasingly privilege circumstance over character, mythos over ethos, historical and social determinism over personal responsibility. And to ultimately construe the individual – in tune with our zeitgeist – as a helpless victim, therefore morally and rationally innocuous even when compromising her or his human integrity by choice.

Five Days Without Nora (Cinco dias sin Nora)

Before closing this rather lengthy observation of the 31st Moscow IFF competition,  a brief reference to the Mexican entry Five Days Without Nora (Cinco dias sin Nora) is in order. Made by Mariana Chenillo, the youngest director in competition (born in 1977), this chamber film was one of the best crafted in the program, and in a way offered a refreshing, almost textbook counterbalance of the prevailing aesthetic and ethic penchants of the works discussed this far, focusing entirely on its protagonist’s thorny path to forgiveness.

The dynamics between incidents prompted by Nora’s death and those initiated by the protagonist Jose – a handsome elderly gentleman in the psychologically nuanced interpretation of the popular Mexican actor Fernando Luján – is also well observed. With their son and his family on vacation, the atheistic and somewhat reluctant Jose is the only one left in charge of the corpse and the funeral arrangements. Once alone in Nora’s apartment, however, he quickly figures out that she has strategically ended her life on the eve of Passover. This realization sets him on an emotional roller-coaster: on one hand, his belief this is the last manifestation of his ex-wife’s manipulative desire to keep him as close as possible triggers his angry decision to have her buried as rapidly as possible even if this has to be done according to the Catholic ritual…  On the other hand, Nora’s passing sets off a series of sentimental flashbacks of their tumultuous love-hate relationship spanning over thirty years, of her breakdowns, infidelities and insecurities, and of his dashed hopes and growing impatience with her and, consequently with his son and his urge to please everyone…

True to its classical humanist pedigree, however, the film raises its emotional stakes of pity and fear as Jose, humbled by the turmoil of painful revelations about his family’s past and present, moves through sadness, dark irony, petulance, nostalgia, sarcasm and relieving laughter, enticing us along to his final cathartic revelation that – all the bitterness notwithstanding – Nora was the love of his life… Thus, without playing up the often didactic juxtaposition of social and historical circumstance vs. personal responsibility, or the game of blame and guilt, Five Days Without Nora quietly reminds us of John Milton’s wisdom that

The mind is its own place and in itself, can make a Heaven of Hell,
a Hell of Heaven…

Christina Stojanova