Moscow Cinema Hallucinations By Daira Abolina

in 28th Moscow International Film Festival

by Daira Abolina

I feel nostalgic for Russian cinema, honestly. Russian cinema meaning not only the pathetically executed action flicks with the ideal men-bandits, but also something noble and unknown…(those beautiful Russian romances that the president of the Moscow International Film Festival, Nikita Mihalkov Sergejevich, himself once sang from the big screen while drinking cold vodka, and afterwards he made the film, Burnt by the Sun…) In other words, the characters are alive. News that Russian film production has reached unprecedented growth seemed intriguing to verify on screen. And how does it all look in the context of international film?

The Moscow International Film Festival is proud of the fact that it is one of the oldest in the world, and that at one point, back in the Soviet days, it really did have a relevant informative function – seeing the big screen, first and foremost, as a window to the big, bad world. But even though that’s true, it was long ago. The game has changed, but the game rules still aren’t clear. The competition segment can unfortunately be likened to the favourite Russian food, the vinaigrette, containing all kinds of cinema vegetables, from the fresh to the wilted. The crispest and most desirable bites are known as “Star” films. In this sense the Muscovites manage to operate the same as Latvians by including films in the festival which have already been bought for the Russian film market. With the festival essentially acting as a marketing plug for the audiences, they wait for the crowds to show-up at box offices once the film is released weeks, or even days, after the end of the festival (Ask to Dust, Volver). The criterion is even less clear in regards to other films.

Of course, it isn’t easy to provide exceptional, fresh films between the two splendid film meals in Cannes and Venice, and that’s why one can find anything and almost nothing in the Moscow festival competition. Films from the marginal sections of other film festivals, perhaps already having won awards, mediocre European film debuts, exotic pearls from the world’s film fringes, and the later works of some former European greats…

An odd, but perhaps logical result has taken place this year specifically with Russian film. The main competition prizes of the last two Moscow festivals were won by Russian films, and after the loud finish of the recent Russian national film festival in Sochi, it was clear that the jury was going to shoot in a different direction. That’s why the film, The Worm, is more likely a compromise decision than testimony to the might of Russian film. A meditatively muddled film whose main hero, a slightly ailing thirty-something, tries to escape a computer-reality deformed daily existence by wandering Russia’s remotest areas to return to nature and himself. In this case The Worm (Chervj) is an almost intellectual symbol – a computer virus leaving “holes” which can be infested by other pests. A void, then, which begets evil. Russian cinema, I say, is going through an anti-hero, non-personality people phase. These types of angst-ridden, immature perpetual youths can be found in many new Russian films.

The good news is that is seems the Russians have gradually gotten over “Hollywood-isation”. There are far fewer films that are attempting to if not copy, then adapt American film clichés to local scenarios (the Russians themselves talk jokingly of the situation a few years back when 90% of the festival’s films were about armed Russian supermen, who are excellent shots, drive fast cars and sleep with beautiful Russian girls). In today’s Russia the emphasis is on quantity, but less on quality. The dregs are many. The festival’s selection committee included 15 tapes in the Russian film out-of-competition segment, and some four of them are considered to be happening (dividing not only the critics, but also the audiences into haters and admirers), and a few more are being saved as potential international film sensations (which can, of course, not happen), for far greater festivals than the Moscow International Film Festival.

There are encouraging signs, though. The so-called chernuha films of the 90s (a style of film noir with its own aesthetic treatment of the ugliness of life) almost apocalyptically changed to films which the Russians call glamour (films portraying the high-living mighty in their fancy abodes ignoring Christian or any other moral norms – the artistic culmination being Zeldovich’s Moscow, at the turn of the century). Of course, also going through the chepuha phase (nonsense without content or artistic merit), which can be applied to the majority of today’s mass cinema. Many directors try hard to express themselves respecting the fact that film is divided into genres. For the most part it’s not great art, but at least it’s thinking of the audiences who have had enough of “pif-paf oi, oi, oi”. The most interesting current examples of this are films from a director with experience in clever melodramas, Alexei Balabanov’s, It Doesn’t Hurt (Mnje ne bolno), and Avdotya Smirnova’s debut film, Relations (Svjazj) based in 70s Russian (true Russian!) tradition. The trademark of Balabanova’s films is Renata Litvinova in a leading role, who has become a kind of a sign of Russian cinema’s distinct exaltations, alienation and even intellect. Perhaps all film heroes maintain that nothing in this life can hurt them, but…they do it with a real Russian kind of sadness. Relations is the story of a late and sinful love affecting two mature, family people, played in praise-worthy performances by the actors Anna Mihalkova and Mikhail Porechenkov. In trying to overcome the already tiresome predictability of life they allow themselves to be carried away, but are wracked with never-ending feelings of remorse.

Alongside the films saved for the big festival circuit – Euphoria (Eiforia) (director Ivan Viripajev) which will most likely surface in Venice, and Free Swim (Svobodnoje plavanje, director Boris Hlebnikov), the loudest discussions at the Moscow festival surrounded theatre director Kiril Serebrenikov’s film debut, Playing the Victim (Izobrazaja zertvu). This, in my opinion, is the most convincing and also shocking film of the moment, having just won the Open Russian Film Festival Kinotavr’s main prize. It is a metaphorically enormous, but at the same time totally viewable black comedy about a man, of course, a thirty-something man, who can’t find anything better to do in life than work in criminal investigations as an “actor” victim for experiments in trials. He wholeheartedly gets into playing the roles from a pool-goer killed by a jealous lover, to a prostitute stabbed in a washroom and a housewife fallen out of a window. The only feelings he knows are a fear of water and the spirit of his deceased father, who visits him often. The bewildered audiences cheered the film’s humour, not lacking in its share of everyday slang and curses, which have been, up until now, “beeped” on screen or even duly crossed-out in screenplays. But the most exciting aspect is that the film can also be read, from another angle, as a modern-day take on Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, and Shakespeare’s Hamlet theme.

Unfortunately, the Vasily Pichul film, Film Festival (Kinofestival), wouldn’t even be worth mentioning if it hadn’t had such a loudly trumpeted world premiere. In the best case it is similar to the 1980s Central TV’s Blue Light, where everyone thought themselves a star, singing and dancing as best they could. But the 1980s – 90s cult director Vasily Pichul’s (Little Vera) musical action takes place at a Moscow film festival! In the 1980s. The director looked aged, both physically and through his screen images. The sarcasm was strangely without humour and it didn’t even leave an impression on the Russians themselves, much less on anybody else. But as democracy has won in the cinemas…Maybe Moscow’s heat has left an impression on the festival selection commission as well?