Lessons From the Past

kinoros.ru"We Are From the Future" shows friends transported back to the trenches.
We Are From the Future" is something of a film enigma wrapped in a mystery -- or, in cinema terms, a youth comedy that morphs into a patriotic World War II drama, and then back again. Whether director Andrei Malyukov's film works is another matter.

It opens in contemporary St. Petersburg, where a group of four friends, led by the dynamic Sergei (Danila Kozlovsky) -- who is a very strong screen presence and should have a great career ahead of him -- are mixed up in some kind of mysterious business. This involves digging up the ground at an out-of-city location, and, since the boys with hairstyles ranging from skinhead to dreadlocks don't look much like archaeologists, we assume it's an underworld deal of some kind.

So far, so standard: The moments of comedy are quite well played, and the film has an effective musical score, although it is overdone at some points. Then we hit the change-of-genre moment, in spades: The friends realize that they have been propelled back to 1942 and the frontline battle against German invaders. They emerge naked from a lake, luckily into the hands of Soviet troops, although they have trouble explaining how they got there, even so. Suffice to say that this is a magic lake that somehow precipitates swimmers back and forth across time.

This may sounds preposterous, but then again the "timewarp" plot element has been an effective one in popular cinema for very many years.

It's often interesting in contemporary Russian cinema to look for recent antecedents, given that in the space of not much more than six or seven years, a new generation of young filmmakers has moved to the big screen from the likes of commercials and music videos.

The opening scenes and setting of "We Are From the Future" don't look much different to Alexei Uchitel's film "The Stroll," with its laid-back depiction of St. Petersburg street life.

The concluding part of the film, however, seems pinned to Fyodor Bondarchuk's Afghan war blockbuster "Company 9," with its elements of romance behind the front line, brutal and well-shot battle scenes and an against-all-the-odds heroic conclusion. So much so that were Bondarchuk to hire lawyers and claim a case of plagiarism, he might have a fair chance of winning.

For MT
"Vanished Empire" depicts student life in the 1970s.
Behind the trappings of what is basically a commercial movie -- and one that has been promoted widely -- there is perhaps something more interesting going on, although I'm not sure the filmmakers planned on that. The film begs questions such as: How does a group of self-interested kids who grew up in the 1990s react when they are taken back into a heroic war environment and required to defend their Motherland? Is there a real connection between the times, and are the characters motivated by heroics or self-interest? The film's final scene, in which the four protagonists return to their own lives, leaves these issues rather open.

Such jumps in history bring up ideological questions left and right. And there are plenty to be asked of Karen Shakhnazarov's "Vanished Empire," which has also had a large-scale release. Essentially, it's a drama of student life set in the 1970s. Concepts such as relationship angst and social concerns have been covered in plenty of recent films, but the period setting certainly makes this one stand out.

The film is being pushed firmly at the kind of youth audience that has thrilled most recently, to "Very Best Movie," a tongue-in-cheek parody of some recent Russian films. Whether this audience gets the message in "Vanished Empire" is another matter, and it's far from the best work by the accomplished Shakhnazarov.

For viewers looking for history in a more traditional sense, Peeter Simm's "Georg" looks like a welcome alternative. It is a biopic about Georg Ots, a renowned Estonian opera singer who died in 1975, having achieved little fame outside the Soviet Union despite his talent. It is especially strong on his later years and complicated relationships.

The film, which comes out Thursday, won't be appearing at many screens near you, but it's a tight and engaging drama from a major Estonian director, even if it may look slightly old-fashioned. The acting performances, led by Marko Matvere as Ots, are as strong as they come. Russia's Alexander Borodnyansky was a co-writer, and the film is a co-production with Russia -- something which in itself seems rather encouraging in the current political climate.

"We Are From the Future" (My iz Budushchego) and "Vanished Empire" (Ischesnuzvshaya Imperiya) are playing at cinemas citywide. "Georg" will be released Thursday.