Russian Cosmos By Susanna Harutyunyan
This is the second year in succession that the main award of the MIFF — Moscow International Film Festival stays in Moscow. The comments regarding this were absolutely different and controversial. Those who did not like the film were awkwardly shaking their heads and saying that it had a ‘mauvais ton’. In addition, we should take into consideration that two of the jury members were Russians: the president of the jury was the famous scriptwriter Valentin Chernikh, and actor Victoria Tolstoganova. Others, including the president of the festival Nikita Mikhalkov, said that it was illogical to withdraw a well-made film and not to award the prize to Alexei Uchitel only because the main prize was given to a participant from Russia last year. Yes, Dreaming of Space (Kosmos kak predchuvstvie) is, of course, an interesting and worthy work. Moreover, it was one of the obvious favorites in the competition program. I will draw attention to this later but first I would like to mention the success of Russian cinema during the last few years.
Film production and distribution are increasing
Russian cinema is gradually coming out of its coma. Today, the amount of film production has been revived to the pre-Perestroika level, which means 100 films per year. One of the latest tendencies in contemporary movie making in Russia is the rapid growth of the so-called repertory cinema production: cinema that does not aspire to solve important artistic questions but aims at the sensible and respectable goal of drawing the Russian viewers into cinema halls to watch Russian movies. Among this category, there are films of different professional levels representing different genres. Their box-office success is also different, often depending not so much on their artistic merits, but on outside factors. Today such movies constitute a major part of Russian movie production and form its most dynamically developing part. In the section of fiction films, domestic blockbusters are represented by Turkish Gambit (dir. Dzanik Faiziyev), Escape (dir. Yegor Konchalovsky) and Counselor of State (dir. Filipp Yankovsky). These movies are examples of the directions in which this genre of cinema is developing: the super-technological thriller blockbuster and the rich costume spectacle from Russian history shot in a more or less traditional manner with lots of stars.
However, the natural inkling for the commercial success does not rule out the existence of real art house films and important cinematic events. Alexei Uchitel’s new film Dreaming of Space is one of these cinematic events. It will return us once again to the enigmatic Russian soul, which invariably lives today for the sake of a happy tomorrow.
The enigmatic Russian soul
Recent films take us back to the late 50s, to be more exact — 1957, which is the borderline between epochs. On the one side there lies darkness of Stalin’s times, on the other there looms something similar to freedom. It is a time of hope and the sincere belief that the future will undoubtedly be bright. The Soviet satellite sends clear signals to the world: We are open to the world, and we will go even further and higher. On earth, the bright beaming eyes of the main protagonists Konyok and Lara — a restaurant cook and his waitress girlfriend — follow the movement of the first satellite called in Russian ‘Sputnik’, which is not only the man-made star, but the symbol of new hope. The Cosmos resembles new hope and a new religion.
The setting of the film is also a border — the border between Soviet Union and Norway. Large waves separate the dejected existence in the nameless little Soviet port town with squalid workers’ canteens from the dignified foreign vessels, arriving with unknown sounds, tastes and smells, and peering from its capitalist heights into this microcosmic segment of space called the USSR. It is scary for the Soviet man to imagine that somewhere out there exists a different life and a different freedom.
A chance acquaintance with German, a stranger visiting the town, brings radical changes into the life of a simple-hearted Konyok. German cracks open a door for Konyok to a different world, a world full of foreign ‘voices’, painstaking physical training, and secret state missions. German is the eternal dissident, he always feels cramped, cramped in the one-room flat, cramped in the provincial town, cramped in the Soviet Union. German knows with utter certainty that one cannot run away from this country, but only fly, or swim. In the movie, German is an embodiment of the desire to overcome the invisible, but firmly knocked together boundaries, enclosing the existence of man in that sad country. The inability to cope with this desire led German into the freezing waves of the Barents Sea. But it might happen that the similar desire some years after led Yuri Gagarin, the first ‘cosmonavt’ (this is the Russian word for astronaut) to Cosmos.
And what about Konyok? He will be carried towards a new life and new expectations by a comfortable Moscow train. In this train he will come face to face with, Yuri Gagarin — the man with a kind smile who for some reason always got his right-shoe lace untied.