Halfway Up the Ladder

in 25th Moscow International Film Festival

by Henry Sheehan

This year, the Moscow International Film Festival found itself halfway up the ladder between a local showcase meant to bring a taste of international fare to Moscow audiences and a must-stop station on the international festival circuit for anyone interested in Russian filmmaking. The festival’s intention seems to be to fulfill both functions, a difficult feat which met with mixed success thanks to practical impediments.

The competition section, for example, was hindered by the requirement that the entries be world premieres – this criterion being exercised merely a month after Cannes. The predictable result was the presence of some truly dreadful efforts, notably Austrian director Franz Novotny’s “Yu”, an excruciatingly simplistic and crude film about three 30ish Austrians and their “adventures” in the disintegrating Yugoslavia (how daring to take on this issue in 2003!). More problematic was the sheer mediocrity of most of the 19 films, including the winner of the celebrity jury’s main prize, “The End of a Mystery”, from Spanish filmmaker Miguel Hermoza. This ludicrous and dismally sentimental film posits that Federico Garcia Lorca survived his 1936 execution, to live on as a brain-damaged homeless man in Granada. The film’s prize brings into question not merely the intellect, but also the sanity of the celebrity jury.

Other films were good, but not of the quality one expects in a competition. Mike Hodges’s “I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead”, for example, was an acceptable film noir, though the director has done far superior in the past (it is, in any case, leagues ahead of “The End of a Mystery”).

The section was redeemed, however, by three Russian films and by Soren Kragh-Jacobsen’s “Skagerrak”, which won the Prize of the FIPRESCI Jury and a Special Mention from the Jury of the Russian Critics. Abandoning his one-time-only flirtation with Dogma, Kragh-Jacobsen returns to a more classic approach with an English-language romantic-comedy-melodrama with spiritual undertones, and which easily transcends the limitations of its familiar plot twists. The presence of this outstanding film constitutes a legitimate coup for the festival and its programmers.

For a visitor from the United States, the three Russian films in the competition provided some of the most provocative moments of the festival. “Koktebel”, which would win the FIPRESCI Special Mention award, was easily the most successful of the three. The story of a father and son who pack up and hit the road from Moscow to the Crimean city of Koktebel, it is sure, more than most Russian films, to appeal to American tastes. Little more than a feeling of restlessness spurred by a sense of loss and painful memories has sent the father packing, while the 11-year-old son’s willingness to follow along is thankfully taken for granted rather than explained. The lure of the road, the exposure of the Russian countryside and its eccentric inhabitants, and the tension between the aims of father and son, add up to a film of uncommon emotional power. That it’s the feature debut of Boris Hlebnikov and Alexei Popogrebsky makes it all the more remarkable.

“The Stroll” is the latest from 52-year-old Alexey Uchitel, who has gone somewhat mad with the long-take possibilities of light-weight digital cameras. A boy picks up a girl on the streets of St. Petersburg, makes a big mistake in introducing her to his best friend, and a love triangle ensues. While the trio goes dizzy with love, the audience goes dizzy with Uchitel’s camera movements, which resemble ’60s-era Lelouch on meth. Nevertheless, the psychological dynamic has enormous pull, and while a Russian colleague informs me that the film also scores many socio-political points, the love story and views of St. Petersburg are more than enough to intrigue.

Irina Evteeva’s animated feature “Petersburg” was of a whole difference class altogether, and not just thanks to its technique. That technique, though, was ravishing. While Evteeva may be known for her short films, a viewer meeting her talent through this feature was quite overcome by it. The filmmaker painted over classic films and new footage using brush and glass to achieve startling, beautiful effects, and if beauty is enough for you, the film is a success. In contrast to the other films, which definitely featured a new, fresh-air approach, Evteeva’s work was a more stolidly Russian effort, in that it was full of musing, philosophizing, and dreaded metaphor. Still, this is a work well worth seeing.

Unfortunately, it was more difficult to see more Russian films, because only two features in the Russian films section were subtitled in English (or in any language) and none offered simultaneous translation. Whether from budgetary shortfalls or excessive modesty, Russian producers or festival officials have seriously underestimated the worldwide interest in Russian filmmaking. They’ve certainly put a crimp in the potential international attendance at the Moscow Film Festival. The fact that some of the Russian section films might be “bad” or “minor” should not be an issue. Film lovers don’t travel to see a national cinema expecting a series of masterpieces; one or two excellent films out of many will do. The point is to see if there is a general creative ferment, as is obviously clearly the case now in Russia.

I did see the subtitled “The Sky, the Plane, the Girl”, which was produced and written by its star, the enormously popular Renata Litvinova, and directed by Vera Storozheva. In many ways, this is not a “good” film; it is too full of starry-eyed close-ups and, to Western ears, sentimental disquisitions on what a love-sick woman seeks in a man. But aside from real virtues (including an abashed engagement with its heroine’s emotional life), the movie connected almost electrically with Russian audiences, especially women. One audience member told me, “I think this movie captures the soul of Russian women”. Where else will one discover such a film and uncover such a reaction if not at Moscow?

In non-competitive sections, the Festival presented “Dogville”; the superior Samurai film “When the Last Sword is Drawn”; Denys Arcand’s “The Barbarian Invasions”; “11.09.01”; and other festival standbys that drew large audiences. Thus, despite the unevenness of the competition films, the Festival was able to upgrade its service to its local audience in other categories.

But after the appearance of three solid Russian entries in the competition, foreign visitors who could not speak Russian (the clear majority) were disappointed in their lack of follow-up opportunities. As excited as they were by the three competitive films, they were let down by the lack of accessibility in the Russian section.

Maybe the Moscow International Film Festival isn’t halfway up a ladder. Maybe it’s halfway up two. Just a boost or two should get it near the top.