Tag Archives: Russian film

Dostoevsky (2010)

“I wanted to write about the world of moral chaos.”

Dostoevsky is a 2010 8 episode mini-series made for Russian television from director Vladimir Khotinenko, and if you’re into Russian film, Russian history or Dostoevsky, then this marvellous DVD is well worth the purchase. The film doesn’t begin with the start of Dostoevsky’s life, but rather it begins as he’s about to be executed for his involvement with the Petrashevsky Circle. This incident was a pivotal event in Dostoevsky’s life–not only did it mark the beginning of his harsh exile in Siberia, but it also marked a turn in his moral outlook which consequently impacted his literary work. Veteran actor Yevgeny Mironov plays Dostoevsky, and I can’t think of another Russian actor who could tackle this fiercely nuanced role so effectively. Interestingly Mironov also played the title role in the 2003 television series version of Dostoevsky’s The Idiot.

Each of the episodes begins with Dostoevsky sitting for the famous portrait painted by Petrov, and then from this point, the action segues usually from memory. Here’s some highlights from each episode:

1) Dostoevsky’s mock execution (not quite accurately portrayed) and his exile &  imprisonment in Omsk, Siberia

2) Dostoevsky as a private and later a lieutenant in the Russian Army stationed in Semipalatinsk, Siberia and his love affair with Maria Dmitrievna Isayeva (played by the exquisite Chulpan Khamatova), the consumptive and miserably unhappy wife of an unemployed bureaucrat.

3) Dostoevsky in St Petersburg 1959: his troubled marriage to Maria, his continuing struggles with his literary career, his love for an actress.

4) Continuing disintegration of marriage to Maria , his passionate affair with Apollinaria Suslov (Polyina), closure of the literary magazine he ran with his brother Mikhail, 1863 trip to Wiesbaden, gambling at casino, public reading of Insulted and humiliated.

5) Dostoevsky, driven almost insane by his passion for Polyina,  follows her to Paris. Goes to Baden- Baden–the death of Dostoevsky’s brother, Mikhail–the death of Maria.

6) Heavily burdened by debt, Dostoevsky makes a bet with publisher that he’ll write a novel in one month. This novel is appropriately called The Gambler, and when Dostoevsky makes the bet to complete the novel in a month, he’s yet to write a line of it. Under immense pressure to meet the deadline (if he loses the publisher has all rights to anything  Dostoevsky produces for the next nine years), he seems destined to fail. With this all or nothing scenario, Dostoevsky employs the quiet, self-possessed Anna (Alla Yuganova) as a stenographer.

7) Marriage to Anna. Baden-Baden 1867. Meets and argues with Turgenev. Anna gives birth to first child

8) Dostoevsky’s family life and continued literary success.

The series depicts Dostoevsky as a complex man, an introvert who falls in love easily, and his love affairs seem to satisfy some facet of his personality. His compassion for Maria, for example, long  outlived any emotional attachment, his second marriage gave him some emotional stability, and his affairs drove him to the brink of insanity. Several scenes depict Dostoevsky in society, and these scenes serve to highlight Dostoevsky’s complexities through his conversations with other intellectuals who repeatedly attempt to pigeon-hole his intricate beliefs & his deep-rooted compassion.

The film doesn’t delve into the production of Dostoevsky’s great novels, and that’s a bit disappointing, and instead the plot focuses on Dostoevsky seen through the prism of his relationships, and his struggles with poverty (at one point for example, he and Anna have to pawn clothes in order to send a finished manuscript of The Idiot back to Russia), and there are also a few allusions to some of the deeper references to his life.  We see Anna doggedly working on a stamp collection, and while there’s no background to that hobby, it’s a reference to the discussion Dostoevsky once had with Anna about women. He claimed that women would approach stamp collecting with the thrill of buying a new expensive album, but that the excitement of stamp collecting would wear off shortly after making the expensive purchase. Anna, who later managed Dostoevsky’s life and career with intelligent, quiet and protective passion, bought a cheap album and proceeded to collect stamps for the rest of her life.  The film also hints of the manner in which she dealt with Dostoevsky’s ever-grasping stepson, Pavel. Watching the film and appreciating the monumental struggles this brilliant author suffered serves to create wonder–not only that a man of this intellectual calibre suffered for the want of a few roubles, but that he never gave up the quest to write the novels he left for the world. 

For this viewer, the film has some unforgettable scenes: Dostoevsky chuckling outside of the casino at Baden-Baden. His pockets are packed are full of his winnings and he chuckles like a child constantly patting his pockets. At another point, he’s trying to finish The Gambler within a month and he’s down to the wire and feeling ill. Anna settles him on the couch and he mutters something about being spoiled. She replies that a man cannot be spoiled by love, and we see the wheels churning in Dostoevsky’s mind as he absorbs that comment. The camera is behind Dostoevsky, so we catch a side view, and somehow the camera captures the thought process in Dostoevsky’s brain–simply by focusing on a close up of an eye and an eyebrow–as he reevaluates Anna.  Another incredible scene takes place between a smoothly depicted Turgenev and an impassioned Dostoevsky (involving the spiteful rumours from the former that the latter molested a child). There’s also a great moment between Dostoevsky and his stepson Pavel as he whines about being poor: “Pasha, this is stupid to be ashamed of poverty, You should be ashamed of stupidity.” Finally one of the film’s most explosive scenes in which Mironov is Dostoevsky takes place during a public reading of Pushkin’s The Prophet. Absolutely incredible.

There were a couple of points in the film that were not explained. At one point, for example, Anna, Dostoevsky’s new stenographer and future wife shows up to work one day and Dostoevsky’s eye is damaged. Has he been beaten up or was this a result of an injury sustained during a seizure? We don’t know. The film has a few subtitle problems but nothing you can’t work out for yourself.

There are two recurring motifs throughout the film: one depicts Dostoevsky throwing a dice during a childhood game, and this motif is placed to introduce the seismic shifts in Dostoevsky’s life–often incidents that take place on a whim or by chance, and the second motif is the continual placement of the roulette wheel juxtaposed with Dostoevsky’s hard labour in Siberia and his task to turn a giant wheel with bloodied hands. As the roulette wheel and the giant wheel to which Dostoevsky was chained, day after day, are structured similarly, the motif underscores Dostoevsky’s addiction to gambling which enslaved him as surely as his sentence to Siberia.  Ultimately the film, loaded with splendid performances, will give you insights into Dostoevsky’s life and work, and that’s no small achievement. This really is a marvellous bio-pic. Grab it if you find it.

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Yaroslav, Tysyachu let Nazad (2010) Iron Lord

I die with the sword in my hand.”

As a fan of Russian cinema, I took a chance on the 2010 film Iron Lord (Yaroslav, Tysyachu let Nazad) from director Dmitri Korobkin. Apart from a short youtube clip, I had no way of gauging whether or not the DVD was worth the purchase, and it’s not available, at least at the time of this post, for rent. These low budget historical/adventure films often end up cheesy, but I was surprised to find that Iron Lord was an entertaining film–not too heavy on gore– despite its historical and war-like setting.

The film begins with a rapid explanation which sets its story in its historical context. It’s the beginning of the 11th century. Grand Prince Vladimir rules in Kiev, and it’s been two decades since he brought Christianity to Russia. His sons rule different areas of the land, and collect tribute from their respective regions–some of which is sent to Kiev. Vladimir’s youngest son Yaroslav (Alexsandr Ivashkevich), oversees the most eastern section and rules in Rostov. There’s a  problem collecting tributes, however, mainly due to the intervention of brigands who also harvest slaves from the local tribes. When the film begins, Yaroslav sets out to collect his tribute only to run right into a band of brigands and their latest haul as they head along the Volga trade route.

Yaroslav and his men, including the mercenary Berserker viking, Harald (Aleksey Kravchenko) take a stand against the brigands which results in the decimation of a pagan shrine of the Bear tribe. Following the attack, Yaroslav reasons that the region will not be safe unless he builds a fort there and offers protection to the local tribes–you can’t after all expect regular tribute payments if those who owe it are being hauled off into slavery. As Yaroslav and his men continue their journey, they capture a woman, Raida (Svetlana Chuikina), the daughter of the chief of the Bear tribe,  Yaroslav decide to return her to her village….

Meanwhile back in Rostov, Prince Sviatozar (Viktor Verzhbitskiy) waits for Yaroslav to return to marry his daughter, Princess Zhelanna, but with each increasing success of the brigands, he begins to suspect that there’s a traitor in their midst….

Skullduggery, battles and even a couple of romances vie for screen time in a film which has very little down time. In spite of the fact the warriors use axes, swords, bows and arrows, and various other pieces of crude weaponry, there’s surprisingly little gore, and the few torture scenes are not overdone–perhaps this is due to the fact that everything is very basic. No iron maidens here–although there is a one mention of a rack, but torture is relegated mostly off-screen. In one torture scene, one poor devil is tortured with a stone removed from the fire, while outside children play with stones, halting their game to listen to the screams.  Scenes show life in Rostov and also in the Bear pagan village which is a nest of traps, underground tunnels, and an enormous grizzly bear who is the manifestaion of their god, Veles. The director seems to use a low-budget handicap to good results. Consequently he succeeds in conveying the crude realism and casual violence of the times; I was ambushed by a couple of the plot developments, and that’s always a good thing.

It isn’t particularly easy to identify the different camps (brigands, the Varangian army, etc) as a title announcing the location of a scene comes on the screen in Russian, so it’s important to keep on your toes for this one, or you’ll miss some of the action. The DVD cover states that this adventure tale is based on a true story, and it is true that Prince Yaroslav united Russia and established the town of Yaroslavl on the Volga.

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And They Woke Up In The Morning (2003)

“Siberian people are required to be examined–they are so wacky.”

And They Woke Up In the Morning (I’ve also seen the film called And in the Morning They Woke Up), is a Russian comedy from director Sergei Nikoneko. The film, based on the novel by Vasili Shukshin, explores the-morning-after-the-night-before through the sorry tales of drunkenness told by eight inmates of a detox centre. The men wake up with hangovers in a communal-type ward, and there’s the unspoken idea that for most of the men, this is a frequent event. Some of the men remember all too well what they did; some have a partial version of events, and some of them have no idea whatsoever what about what happened. If this sounds like great comic material to you, then you probably won’t be disappointed.

Since the film involves eight different stories about just how these men ended up in a detox centre, the film’s structure is very straightforward. While the story’s top layer concerns itself with what these men actually did, there’s a second layer of drama here as the men interact with one another and very quickly establish a social hierarchy. The film begins with the cell bully, Urka (Sergei Garmash) telling  a first-time offender (Yevgeni Stychkin) that he killed someone. Eventually what happened is revealed and this has to be one of the funniest scenes in the film. In one story, a man (Igor Bochkin) takes his daughter to the supermarket and doesn’t understand why he meets with such hostility–until his past actions are explained to him. Another man is arrested for drunk driving a tractor.  

Most of the men’s wild stories of drunkness and bad behaviour build in terms of social transgression, but the last few stories fell just a little flat. That was unfortunate, but overall the film was really funny (I laughed in the film’s opening scene) and it’s well-worth catching if you’re interested in Russian film.

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Schizo (2004)

There are some films that put our problems into perspective, and Schizo, a 2004  film about poverty and survival from director Gulshat Omarova does exactly that. The film has a couple of other titles, Fifty-Fifty and The Recruiter. I’d prefer either of those over Schizo–although my copy comes with that title.

Schizo, which is written by the director in collaboration with Russian powerhouse director Sergei Bodrov, is a Russian language film set in Kazakhstan. The Schizo of the title is Mustafa, a fifteen-year-old boy (Oldzhas Nusupbayev) who is seen immediately as a problem teen. He’s been expelled from school (that’s where the nickname Schizo comes in), and he has a doctor’s appointment (with his mother in attendance) to determine just what the problem is. While the appointment is, ostensibly to find out just what’s ‘wrong’ with this teenage boy, the incident that led to his expulsion from school and the doctor’s (Viktor Sukhorukov) subsequent diagnosis all seem unfair. After all, while Schizo may seem slow, who’s to say at this point just how much is due to his social deprivation. The scenes in the doctor’s office are unforgettable. How many of us have tried paying our doctors with a jar of sour cream and a bag full of eggs?

Schizo lives with his mother and her sleazy boyfriend Sakura (Eduard Tabishev). Their home looks like a makeshift-lean-to, but as the film continues, it’s easy to see that Schizo lives in positive luxury when compared to most of the other locals.

There appears to be an age discrepancy between Schizo’s mother and her boyfriend, Sakura, but that may be due to the fact that she’s led a harsh life and Sakura is more-or-less loafing around. Sakura does make money, however, through arranging illegal boxing matches. Sakura, who doesn’t like to take risks, floats Schizo in front to do the actual recruiting of day-labourers and anyone else desperate or hungry enough to risk being beaten to death for a relatively small amount of money. The fights are organised by gangsters and held in what appears to be an abandoned building. Severely beaten fighters are left to die in empty rooms.

Schizo is a fascinating character who’s seriously, and as it turns out dangerously, underestimated. The name “Schizo” is one of the cruel nicknames given to the teen by classmates, and everyone writes him off as retarded. Not a PC term these days, but this is how everyone acts towards Schizo. They do and say things in front of him that they assume he can’t compute. Big mistake. Fate and a kept promise takes him to the shack of Zinka (Olga Landina). It’s a lesson in humility to see how these people live. While Zinka lives in squalor, she rents the shack she lives in from a landlord, and she’s behind on the rent….

While Schizo is not a particularly appealing character, I found myself cheering him on as he comes up against some nasty gangsters. There are some marvellous scenes here which illustrate the harshness of life in Kazakstan, and just how far these tough people will go to survive. The scenes depict a country so poor, it’s almost impossible to contemplate anyone employing people for meaningful work, and one of the most telling factors of poverty is the conditions in which people live. Schizo’s uncle lives in what appears to be an abandoned, dilapidated Noah’s Ark of a boat. No toilet, no running water, no electricity, but it offers shelter and indeed some measure of security. Other scenes depict locals stripping telephone wires. The wires have been dormant for years, so there’s no fear of electrocution but their abandoned presence raises many questions about what the hell happened to Kazakhstan.

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Sisters (2001)

As a fan of Sergei Bodrov Jr Brother (Brat 1997) and Brother II (Brat II 2000), I was delighted to find a copy of the film that was supposed to be his directorial debut, Sisters (Syostry 2001). The film was made the year before the tragic death of the director in an avalanche while on location in the Caucasus. Bodrov jr’s father also directed a number of excellent Russian films including (Prisoner of the Mountains, Mongol, East/West).

While Brother I and II concentrate on the relationships between brothers, Sisters focuses, as the title suggests, on the relationship between a pair of sisters–13-year-old Sveta (Oksana Akinshina) and her spoiled eight-year-old half-sister, Dina (Katya Gorina). The film begins with the release of Sveta’s step-father, gangster Alik (Roman Ageyev) from prison. While Dina and her mother Natasha (Tatyana Kolganova) are excited at Alik’s imminent return, Sveta lives with her grandmother and seems cut out of the intimate family circle. She’s been told that she doesn’t even “have a father,” and while she doesn’t pass judgment on her mother, there’s the implication that she’s not holding out much hope that her mother will ever come to her senses about Alik. Sveta, who has a life and friends of her own, is an unusual girl. She’s practical, driven by common sense, and her career goal is to be a sniper.

Alik’s release doesn’t turn out to be quite the celebration everyone expected. His boss demands the money that Alik, a mid-level gangster, claims the police took from him, and war is declared between the two groups. Alik hides the two girls in a safe house until things settle down, but instead the girls end up on the run from the gangsters who want to hold Dina hostage until their money is returned. 

The plot creates some excellent contrasts between the sisters. Dina is loved and cherished while Sveta realises that she’s unwanted and a nuisance more than anything else. Dina, who’s treated like a little princess by her parents, expects good things to come her way while Sveta anticipates the worst. Sveta and Dina are not particularly close, but as the story winds on and strong-willed Sveta continues to elude the gangsters using her wits, the two girls become closer and gradually they begin to appreciate each other. 

While there are gangsters and some shoot outs in the film, the emphasis is on the thrill of the chase and the bonding between  the two girls, so there is less violence than the Brothers films. There are some excellent scenes here that offer glimpses into gypsy life. Look out for Bodrov in a cameo role as a gangster in an SUV.  

Oksana Akinshina also starred in the amazing 2002 Lucas Moodysson film Lilya-4-Ever, and in Sisters her talent is once again impressive. While as Sveta she didn’t seem to be 13 years old, nonetheless, she carried off the role of the cynical, unflappable teenager.

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A Hero of Our Time 2006 (clip)

To date (2/10) there’s no version available of the 2006 film A Hero of Our Time (Geroy Nashego Vremeni) with English subtitles. But here’s a clip (Pechorin’s Duel) from youtube:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r9Raf8_VJX0&feature=channel

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Russkoe (2004)

“For Art to be profitable, it has to be on the same side as crime.”

Russkoe, a 2004 film directed by Aleksandr Veledinsky is based on the novels and stories of Eduard Limonov, so it shouldn’t be too surprising that the film is partly autobiographical. The film is set in 1959 and when the film begins it’s the October  holidays, and everyone is celebrating. Everyone except Ed…. 

Ed (Andrey Chadov) is 16. He’s the only child of a policeman (Mikhail Efremov) and his wife (Yevdokiya Germanova) in the Ukrainian city of Kharkov. Kharkov is the sort of town in which the breaking of a shop window morphs into an intense search for the perpetrator. Although there’s a vivid street life among various outcasts and misfits, daily Soviet life is depicted as rather drab and unpleasant with everyone leading a hardscrabble existence. Aspects of Western culture peek through as desirable and unattainable (Elvis Presley, for example) to Ed’s crowd.  Ed, who’s a would-be poet, runs with a marginal crowd and isn’t above using his poetry to distract victims for pickpocketing. In one scene, a woman covered with war medals screams that she’s been robbed by Ed’s friends, and she’s man-handled by the local police who are more interested in shutting her up than investigating her accusations. 

When the film begins, Ed is infatutated by the perfect, unattainable beauty, Svetka (Olga Arntgolts). Sveta tells Ed “You are too poor for me,”  and then Sveta hints that she may have sex with Ed if he takes her to a restaurant. Ed spends quite a bit of time and energy trying to get 200-300 roubles in order to give Sveta a night out. Unfortunately while Ed goes around hitting up everyone for a loan, they in turn hit him up for a drink instead. But after his futile quest for money ends badly (and he abandons a book of Blok poetry), he finds himself locked up in the Saburka insane asylum for a “puberty crisis.” And this is where the film settles in and becomes very interesting, dark, and humourous. 

Although just 16, Ed is placed in the adult ward, in the so-called quiet room with four other prisoners. There’s Sasha (a WWII deserter) a man who continues to be there through influence, a psychopath, an intellectual, and Avaz (Aleksandr Robak), a chronic masturbator. While Ed imagines that his turn-around in the insane asylum will be fast, another inmate explains that Ed has a fat chance of being released since the fascist medical director specializes  in suicide. 

In pre-revolutionary Russia, prisons became the ‘universities’ for dissidents, and in Russkoe, the message seems to be that the insane asylum becomes Ed’s ‘university’. Locked up with the so-called insane, he learns to value his poetry and use it as a tool. He’s told that “all the greats wrote in jail,” and he discovers that Khelnikov and Vrubel were locked up in the same institution. 

The characters in the insane asylum are locked up for various transgressions against Soviet society. A suicide case is supposed to be locked up for his own protection until the crisis is over. But in Ed’s case, he’s viewed as some sort of deviant. The film is rife with imagery of Soviet culture which largely focuses on telling people how to behave–one poster depicts a man saying ‘No’  to alcohol, another poster promotes breast  health, and a poster inside the insane asylum lists various “Socialist Obligations.” There’s a dark humour to the appearance of this poster as the staff at the insane asylum–with very few exceptions play out their own fantasies and theories of life using the patients. The favoured punishment  is to strap the patient to his bed and inject him with sulfur: “If you misbehave, you get sulfur. Takes you three days to get back.” 

Perversions of power, the crushing of individualism and the control of behaviour appear throughout the film, and  at one point a character discusses religion with Ed, asking:  “Is god a kind of super KGB agent listening to all of us all the time?” Along with this view are crimes against the state and the subsequent punishment–with those in charge making all the decisions about what’s acceptable in society and what isn’t. Ed, after all, tried to destroy himself, and rather ineffectually at that. For this ‘crime,’ he’s viciously punished and almost destroyed by the very institution that is supposedly saving him from himself.

Clips from the film October by Sergei Eisenstein depict the storming of the Winter Palace in 1917 and these scenes are recreated in parallel scenes of the residents of Kharkov storming the asylum. The message is that perhaps another revolution needs to take place. 

Eduard Liminov is the leader and founder of the Nationalist Bolshevik Party (The Nazbols), and one scene depicts Ed as a middle-aged man, still in prison garb and the physical similarity to Limoniv is inescapable. Limonov was locked up in 2002 for weapons trafficking. In an early scene in the film, one of Ed’s friends rues that their Slav ancestors  “didn’t fight to conquer hot countries.” Since one of The National Bolsheviks’ goals is to create one huge country which encompasses Russia and Europe, I wasn’t sure if this is a sly dig or just a way to show the germination of Limonov’s beliefs. I read some articles about Limonov (whose real name is Savenko, by the way). Some of the articles were patronizing, but that said, I don’t agree with Limonov’s disturbing politics at all. I did enjoy the film, though. I can find very little information about Russkoe, so if someone out there has more information, please leave a comment.

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