Russian cinema is not so much repressed as divided. Some films dwell on a glorious lost order, but others are unflinchingly critical of the new oneby Derek Brower / April 23, 2006 / Leave a comment
Under grey skies, past industrial detritus, through broken fences and mud, a prostitute traipses from a rural railway station to the funeral of a friend. The toothless old women of the town—the men, we presume, are dead—drink, curse and begin a bizarre orgy. They undress and juggle flaccid breasts. Febrile dogs chase shadows. A young man commits suicide in despair.
Welcome to the Russian countryside, depicted in all its misery in Ilya Khrzhanovsky’s debut film, 4 (or Chetyre). We are far from the riches of Moscow and even further from the images of the restorative countryside so familiar from popular Russian culture and cinema. Western viewers accustomed to the films of Hollywood’s favourite Russian, Nikita Mikhalkov (Burnt by the Sun, The Siberian Barber), might be unsettled by 4. At home, Khrzhanovsky—whose film won awards at Rotterdam, Seattle and other film festivals—has been accused of betrayal. The ministry of culture wanted 40 minutes of the film cut (they weren’t). One critic described 4 as an abuse of the country’s hard-earned freedom of speech.
Based on the screenplay by novelist Vladimir Sorokin, 4, like other films of the Russian new wave, is an exercise in de-mythologisation.There are no splendid slow-moving rivers, fur-clad noblemen, gentle monks or wise old women in 4. Instead, this is a Russia where the countryside has been spoiled, its older generation rendered irrelevant and its younger generation battles to claim personal histories in a context devoid of any defining narrative. The film’s brilliant opening, a discussion of what can and cannot be believed, hangs over the rest of the movie.
The controversy surrounding 4 takes place within a revival of Russian cinema, with ambitious domestic movies offering some real competition to Hollywood. Fyodor Bondarchuk’s 9th Company (2005), last year’s big earner, was billed as a Russian Full Metal Jacket. But far from offering a critique of the disastrous invasion of Afghanistan—and, by implication, of Russia’s wars in Chechnya—9th Company glories in nostalgia for the Soviet past when, apparently, people knew what they were fighting for. Bondarchuk (son of the great Soviet director Sergey Bondarchuk) himself plays the inspirational senior officer of the fated 9th company.
The other big films of the past few years also tend to dwell—sometimes for too long, as in Mikhalkov’s 1998 epic The Siberian Barber—on a glorious Russian past, reverting to clichés about the Russian soul. This category includes last year’s adaptations of Boris Akunin’s popular novels The State Counsellor and The Turkish Gambit.
When enjoying these popular films, it is easy for a westerner to believe the picture of Russia that dominates western coverage of the country: a nation nostalgic for its glorious past, eager to see its national myth reasserted and devoid of meaningful domestic challenges to it. Putin, as everyone knows, has crushed domestic opposition. The ex-KGB colonel even invited Bondarchuk to the Kremlin for a screening of 9th Company. “The people who fought there for their ideals did a good job,” was the president’s assessment.
Yet things are more complex than this, even on Russian television, as the recent broadcasting of several serials on state television suggests. One brought to the screen the tortuous life of the poet Sergey Esenin (1895-1925), whose poetry was frequently banned in the USSR. A serial of Mikhail Bulgakov’s novel The Master and Margarita—also banned in the USSR—was broadcast with much fanfare in December. The tagline on its advertising, which dominated Russian cityscapes, was “Manuscripts don’t burn,” the devilish Woland’s words from the novel. Earlier this year, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s novel about life in a research prison camp, The First Circle, was also serialised, with a screenplay and voiceovers from the author. Later this year, a serial of Boris Pasternak’s Doktor Zhivago will be broadcast, with Russia’s biggest star, Oleg Menshikov, in the main role.
All of these serials are of high quality. (Thanks to Russia’s marvellous pirate DVD industry, Doktor Zhivago has been available in advance of its screening for weeks.) All of them have received money from the state. All of them make countercultural statements about the Russian (or Soviet) past, and the state’s potential for terror against its citizens. The same is true for many of the new wave films, which have Russia’s intelligentsia swapping DVDs like they once exchanged samizdat literature. Indeed, one of the criticisms of 4 is that it, too, received state funding—as if grants should be reserved for art that delivers a positive image of Russia. But the cult popularity of the new wave films subverts both the image of Russia propagated in the big-budget films and the idea that Russian society no longer affords space to critical debate.
Given their place on the art-house margins, films such as Andrei Zvyagintsev’s The Return and Boris Khlebnikov and Aleksey Popogrebsky’s Koktobel (both 2003), might, like 4, be understood as journeys into the Russian subconscious—a view also supported by the dream-like qualities of each film. If the Mikhalkov and Bondarchuk films depict Russia as it wishes to be seen—soulful, colourful, generous—the films of the new wave offer a reality about the country that it would prefer to repress: harsh, grey, and uncertain.
Each of these films implicitly addresses the issue of authority. In 4, state power is characterised either by its destructive withdrawal— abandoning the countryside to a post-industrial, drunken wilderness—or through its capriciousness. The random arrest and imprisonment of one protagonist is a clear reference to recent events, particularly the treatment of Mikhail Khodorkovsky
Koktobel and The Return are gentler, more elegiac films with none of the directorial excesses of 4, but they also make pessimistic statements about the post-communist landscape and the individual’s relationship to authority. To do so, both revisit one of Russian literature’s eternal themes—fathers and sons. Both films involve journeys of discovery. It is impossible to watch them without interpreting them in the light of Russia’s own picaresque recent history, from relative Soviet stability to rampant capitalist chaos.
Contemporary Russian cinema projects two visions. First, the chauvinism of Mikhalkov and Bondarchuk, with its implicit desire to re-mythologise Russia and its past. And second, the new wave’s nightmarish view of a moribund country finding only emptiness in its once revered symbols. To believe in Russia, enjoy Mikhalkov. To get into its subconscious, enter the new wave.