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The State of Contemporary Russian Cinema
Page Two

Another village, this time a Chechen one, is the setting for Sergei Bodrov's The Prisoner of the Caucasus. Although not represented at MOMA, it was recognized as one of the year's best. Here, it has been nominated for the Golden Globe Awards in the Best Foreign Film category and is scheduled to open in New York in January. Taking no chances with the viewers' erudition, Orion Pictures retitled the film Prisoner of the Mountains. Did they really think someone would misunderstand and conclude that the subject is OJ, the Prisoner of the Caucasians?

Djemal Sikharulidze plays a Chechen villager who holds two Russian soldiers hostage in Sergei Bodrov's Prisoner of the Mountains. (Copyright 1996, Orion Pictures)

A loose modern version of a Tolstoy novella of a century ago, Prisoner takes us to the midst of the Chechen war. Vania, a green recruit (Sergei Bodrov Jr., the director's son), and the unit commander, cynical Sasha (Oleg Menshikov) are captured by the rebels and sold to a village patriarch, who hopes to trade them for his own son being held by the Russians. The plot takes a somewhat predictable route: ties form between the captives, between the captives and the captors, between Vania and the patriarch's daughter. The hopes for the trade wax and wane and wax again. The most striking thing about the film is its sympathetic view of Chechen life: both mediaeval and idyllic, harsh as the forbidding Caucasus Mountains, and based upon family honor, blood ties, and blood revenge. You sort of expect to see the young Al Pacino show up in the wake of executing a corrupt Moscow police chief. These pastoral values are juxtaposed with the crude colonialism and corruption of the Russian military, who are the real villains here. Along with The Moslem, the film sounds a note of pacifism and cultural tolerance, thus setting the author up for charges of anti-patriotism more than any American movie ever did. These two make Coming Home (remember the Jon Voight-Jane Fonda flick?) or Born on the Fourth of July look like John Wayne's The Green Berets.

While The Moslem and Prisoner were lauded by the critics, Peculiarities of the National Hunt was a hit with wider audiences (and seems to be a popular favorite for the Nike award). Although seemingly more light-hearted than the above, Peculiarities is a slyer and more subversive work. Almost plotless, it is the Russian version of Marco Ferreri's La Grande Bouffe--without food. That is, barely do the credits finish rolling as the characters are already drunk--and remain in this blissful state throughout the film. Ostensibly, these old pals are going to an island near the Finnish border to hunt; in reality, they can never find a sober moment to do that. It is a ninety-minute-long drunken anecdote, unlikely to be appreciated by American P.C. audiences. Me, I laughed my guts out at the scenes where a bomber crew is bribed to transport a cow across the island. Or how about an alcoholic bear cub who pursues the hunters and relents once it gets hold of their vodka? Although both animals remain alive, I'm not sure PETA will approve.

To be sure, like Russian life itself, no Russian film is complete without vodka consumption on an epic scale. Even the Chechens in Prisoner tipple generously, deviating from the Koran. Or, how does the author of The Play for a Passenger, a movie about an ex-con's revenge on a judge, demonstrate his hero's inability to enjoy life? He makes sure that this successful gangster/businessman is unable to drink due to a stomach condition he had acquired in prison. (While the ex-judge, though a failure in the new Russia, enjoys his vodka prodigiously.) Yet what gives Peculiarities special poignance is the presence of an idealistic Finnish boy, who hopes to take part in a classic Russian 19th Century hunt, complete with racing borzois and French-speaking nobles. Once again, new Russian ways are set against foreign ones--this time against old Russian ways, too--and found wanting.

from The Play for a Passenger
(photo courtesy of The Museum of Modern Art)

One thing all Russian movies share, beside vodka, is a fond view of nature. The villagers in The Moslem are moral cripples, but the Russian countryside is worshipped with quasi-paganist fervor: recall the sprawling fields of Mikhalkov's country estate in Burnt by the Sun. The city, invariably shown in the hypernaturalistic mode in every contemporary Russian film from Little Vera on, is pure evil: sullen hostile crowds, drunken hooligans, cramped and shabby cell-like apartments, and garbage dumps. "People go crazy in the city," remarks one of vodka-sodden buddies in Peculiarities. "They should go visit nature more often. To, er, relieve themselves. I mean, to find relief." An hour later, he would dynamite an old oak tree in yet another vodka accident. Perhaps this is the key to the film's success: it takes all the required elements of Russian movies--vodka, nature, and patriotism--and puts a mean twist on all three.

One film that stands apart from this message-y crowd is Sergei Ovcharov's three-year-old Barabaniada ("The Drum Epic"). A seemingly light-hearted comedy, reminiscent of Jacques Tati's Playtime, it follows its hapless hero, a drummer in a funeral band, and his "Stradivarius" drum, on a picaresque romp through the post-Soviet countries. Ovcharov is wildly inventive and manages a comic take on the grimmest situations. The film has no dialogue: the entire soundtrack consists of sound effects alternating with classical-music passages (the latter it could have done without: a drum roll here and there would have been effective enough). The fun is so pervasive, the sentiments so universal, that the film should be a favorite of the art-theater circuit. Yet for one reason or another it is not available in this country.

The impenetrability of the American market is a favorite subject among Russian filmmakers. The arguments about Americans going to the multiplexes to watch, not to read subtitles, do not take you far with people who prize festival awards above sales to cable. In a recent conversation, a Russian actress countered my criticism of Little Odessa with this clincher: "But Vanessa Redgrave [who had a supporting part in it] won the award for Best Actress at the Toronto Festival!" Ooh. Now, that changes things...

I have nothing against festivals, so long as one keeps things in perspective--which sometimes takes my Russian friends quite an effort. But therein really lies the paradox: while Russian films, burdened with the Foreign label, are locked inside the festival and art-house circuit, there is nothing particularly artsy about them. The best of them are made in straight narrative fashion. Yet their settings and their concerns are fascinatingly exotic to American viewers--and why shouldn't they be? Just as I find it hard to imagine an American director making The Moslem (The Viet?), the notion of a Russian director making Spanking the Monkey appears even more improbable. The real audience for the Russian films is not in our multiplexes; it is spread across their own twelve time zones. All we can be is spectators, watching from the stands and learning how this fascinating country, hopelessly corrupt and yet so intellectually rich, is wrestling with its past, present, and future.

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David Gurevich is a freelance writer. His work has appeared in The NY Times, The Boston Globe, The Wall Street Journal, and The New Criterion.

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