The Vanished Empire (2008)

“Do you know how much Bulgakov is on the black market?”

The Vanished Empire (Ischeznuvshaya Imperiya) from director Karen Shakhnazarov was just released by Kino. Don’t get me started on the fact that most Russian films don’t even make it to distribution in America–so good for Kino for selecting this excellent title. I don’t know who picked this one for Kino, but they have a few Russian titles to their name and they’ve all been choice films.

The Vanished Empire is a coming-of-age drama set in Moscow of the 70s. It’s the twilight of the Soviet era, and things are changing, but not soon enough for the troubled young protagonist, 18-year-old student Sergei Narbekov (Aleksandr Lyapin). Sergei lives with his middle-aged divorced mother (Olga Tumajkina), his once-famous archeologist grandfather (Armen Dzhigarkhanyan) and his younger brother. In many ways Sergei is a very typical teenager. He hasn’t yet worked out what he wants to do with the rest of his life, and he doesn’t really understand himself well. Now he’s landed in college, but he’s only got eyes for the other girls in the lecture rooms. Sergei coasts along, stealing books for his grandfather’s collection and selling them cheap to a Moscow book seller–no questions asked. The money Serge squeezes from these shady transactions is ploughed into Western goods–jeans and Stones and Pink Floyd records furtively bought from black market hustlers. His lack of interest in his college lectures is not political and his inattentiveness springs from boredom more than anything else. But Sergei is also directionless and subject to whims and impulses.

While Sergei’s mother worries about her son and the moral implications of his actions, Sergei’s tolerant grandfather’s attitude is different. He turns a blind eye to his grandson’s pilfering and when confronted with the proceeds, he appears to find pleasure in the fact that Sergei is getting some use from the mountains of books that crowd their tiny Moscow apartment. Meanwhile Sergei’s mother has worries of her own–she’s meeting a man on the sly.

Sergei hangs out with two friends, Stepan (Yegor Baranovsky) andKostya (Ivan Kupreyenko) the privileged son of a diplomat, but these friendships are interrupted when Sergei meets Lyuda (Lidiya Milyuzina), an attractive, sincere student. As Sergei stretches to impress Lyuda, there’s the implied sense that this relationship will affect him deeply. On one hand, Lyuda seems the sort of girl who may help stabilize Sergei’s somewhat morally fuzzy character, but on the other hand, will he be able to live up to her expectations?

There’s one scene when Sergei visit’s Lyuda’s apartment and he marvels at the books on the shelves. Lyuda’s mother offers to lend him a book, and he takes it away. Given that we’ve already seen him smuggle out his grandfather’s books and sell them in exchange for western trinkets, this scene subtly poses the question, what will Sergei do with the book? Is he taking the book simply to please Lyuda’s mother, or will he have it evaluated and sell it? It’s this sort of scene that makes this seemingly simple drama so intense. Sergei is making choices that will determine the outcome of the rest of his life, and unfortunately he doesn’t realize the stakes. At one point for example, after completely alienating Lyuda, he has one chance to win her back, and once again Sergei doesn’t really understand the choices he’s about to make….

While the film examines the turning points in Sergei’s life, it’s impossible to escape the film’s meta meaning. Sergei’s family unit is composed of three generations–a pre-revolutionary grandfather, his mother, a pure soviet woman, and Sergei, a young man on the brink of change. Those changes are of course mirrored by the changes about to sweep over the Soviet Union. The lectures on Soviet ideology no longer hold the students’ attention at the university, and even the attempts to stamp out black marketeers are tepid. There’s no energy left in the Soviet system; it’s effectively burned itself out.

The idea of lost civilisations is implicit throughout the film, and these scenes underscore the impermanence of life and the paradoxical desire of humans to leave some sort of monument to our existence.  At one point, for example, one of Sergei’s more intense teachers drags the class off to an excursion to the Black Sea to gather folklore before it disappears from view. This excavation of history is then continued when Sergei takes a journey to Khorezm, the City of the Winds, the meeting place of his parents. There standing in what constitutes the village square, he sees a statue of Marx, a long-lost relic of the Soviet Union. Can anyone in that village identify that statue? Do any of the villagers know who Marx is? Just as we see the dust and magnificent ruins of Khorezm that hint of a marvelous long vanished empire, we also witness the figurative ruins, the twilight of the Soviet Union: the disinterested youth who are bored by communist party history and who yearn for black market goods, and a long forgotten statue of Marx standing in a corner of what was the Khorezm Socialist Soviet Republic.

Touted as a coming-of-age tale, The Vanished Empire is ultimately a touching, affecting, and very accessible  film.

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