When in Moscow, Watch Russian Films

in 31st Moscow International Film Festival

by Kristiina Davidjants

The Russian filmmakers rely on classics or stories about real persons, be it Ivan the Terrible or a village fool who lived in distant Siberia in the 1950s.                    

“Nothing ever changes in Russia!” I hiss at the security guard, who refuses to let me in the press centre. “Your card says jury but this here is for journalists. No, I will not let you in, ne polozheno (you are not supposed to), speak with the management” says the man despite my attempts to explain that the FIPRESCI jury in the context of Moscow IFF means a group of very important film journalists. But there is no reason for feeling unfairly singled out as a couple of days earlier Adrien Brody got scolded for trying to pull a little joke after the opening ceremony by rattling a door knob. Moscow kept reminding you – whether in the street or from the screen, through art or in reality – of the immense and mystical Russian soul. And the presentation of new Russian films – all of which, to a smaller or larger extent, concerned with soulful issues – was on the plus side of the festival programming.

Although formally the festival is category A, one must admit that the only films in competition,  interesting to watch, were either from Russia or in Russian language. Most of the other films were just below the bar. There were probably more reasons to it, but clearly an award at the Moscow festival as a promotional device means a lot more for local distributors than to distributors of major film countries, who would rather send their films to Cannes or Venice anyway. Therefore the majority of prizes went to Russian movies: the Best Film Award to Petya On The Way To Heaven (director Nikolai Dostal), and the Special Prize – to the mystical puzzle story The Miracle (director Aleksandr Proshkin).         

Both movies are set in the fifties and both are based on real events, but differ from each other like day and night. Petya On The Way To Heaven tells a story about Petya, the village idiot, who could be described in short as a Dostoyevskian Forrest Gump. It is the spring of 1953 in the distant Siberian town of Kandalaksha. Young Petya imagines he is a traffic inspector and acts accordingly: stops cars, “inspects” them and, after begging a higher-up for a weapon, receives a wooden pistol, which he paints black to look like real. The entire village plays along in this make-belief, where crazy Petya is indeed a figure of authority. The game is prompted by a normal human compassion but also – and more importantly – by the fact that this mundane spectacle fits conveniently into the dominant Stalinist irrationality. There have been lavish retro films made during the Soviet times as well, but what makes this movie special is that, despite of the grim era, it is extremely bright, and Petya’s story is told lightly and with humour. The stream of daily life in a distant Russian settlement is evolving before our eyes with people scrambling to live according to their own truth. Nobody is repressed or persecuted or suffering, and the characters sacrificed at the end of the film perish as symbols of the old order, making way for new one.              

The Miracle is a completely different film, which could be expected knowing that the script was written by Yuri Arabov, a long-time collaborator of Aleksandr Sokurov. The story is based on events, which allegedly happened in Samara in 1956, where a girl by the name of Zoya was suddenly “petrified” for four months after attempting a sacrilegious dance at a party with the icon of St Nicholas. In the film, syringes just break off her frozen up-right body, and no one seems strong enough to detach her from the floor or wrestle the icon out of her hands. Her affliction also seems to be contagious as people around her die, go crazy or leave town. The film is structured partly as a reconstruction of real events and partly as a parabola of our choices to believe in miracles.              

Although made on minimal budgets (in Russian terms), both Petya and The Miracle offer much more to the mind and soul than the pompous Tzar by Pavel Lungin, the opening film of the festival about Ivan the Terrible. More than a heap of money and a Hollywood DOP are needed for triggering the mechanisms of soul. The film is showy and ambitious, but oh, how hollow. In anticipation of the next sadistic entertainment of the tzar and his entourage, I was wondering what the reasons for their blood-thirsty behaviour really were. A little more psychological insight would have helped the film tremendously! Karen Shakhnazarov’s adaptation of A. Chekov’s Ward No 6 was also poor. Structured as a pseudo-documentary, it showcases various people – patients, co-workers, neighbours – who are sharing in on camera interviews what they know of the reasons as to why Dr. Ragin has himself ended up in the psycho ward. Such an intriguing interpretation and staging technique for an authentic rendering of Chekov’s original text could have probably worked in a shorter format but in this case it becomes boring rather quickly.       

According to the competition program of the Moscow IFF, the Russian filmmakers are looking for answers in history and in literary classics. The only one to look for those answers in the present day reality was Kira Muratova, whose film was actually made in Ukraine but featured mostly Russian actors in the leading roles. Muratova’s Christmas anti-fairytale Melody for Barrel-Organ tells a disconsolate story about a sister and a brother who, after the death of their mother, go to seek shelter in a big city. This 2.5-hour film is far from perfect, but those who watch it to the end are not likely to remember what they have seen for quite a while. Muratova continues to be the radical, making the films she wants ,and probably this is where the key to her success lies.        

Edited by Christina Stojanova