From Home and Abroad

Moscow International Film Festival
The 30th jubilee edition of the Moscow International Film Festival, which opened Thursday night and runs to June 28, is once again trying to assert itself on the world stage. The task of confirming its place among the ranks of the so-called "Class A" international festivals with which it nominally competes has been ongoing for more than a decade. Improvements have certainly come in recent years -- though perhaps not always to the extent that its organizers have claimed.

The festival opened only days after the close of Russia's main national film festival, Kinotavr, in Sochi. Given the strength of Kinotavr's program, the question for Moscow has always been whether it attracts the best of local talent in a first-view competition format. Recent years have seen major awards going to films such as Dmitry Meskiev's "Our Own," and "Koktebel" by debut directors Alexei Popogrebsky and Boris Khlebnikov. Sometimes that acclaim has been based on real quality, and sometimes, arguably, on local allegiances.

Paradoxically, that may not have proved an encouragement for Russian producers to put their films forward in Russia -- the expectation that local films will be awarded prizes on a regular basis looks like an illusion, reflecting something of the atmosphere of the festival in the Soviet period. During that period, prizes, with rare exceptions, went to either local works or films from the Eastern bloc, or at least Soviet-friendly nations.

Some of Kinotavr's acclaimed films have already debuted elsewhere, like the festival's overall winner Bakur Bakuradze's drama "Shultes," which appeared first in Cannes last month. Other directors, like Alexei Uchitel, whose "The Stroll" opened the Moscow festival a few years ago, have chosen to go for future international festival exposure and skip Moscow: Uchitel's new film "Captive," based on a Chechnya-themed story by writer Vladimir Makanin, will play in competition at July's Karlovy Vary Festival. This event, which throughout the Soviet period played in collaboration with Moscow in alternate years, has long held the mantle of a showcase for Eastern European and Russian film.

The opening film at MIFF was U.S. director Peter Berg's "Hancock," starring Will Smith and Charlize Theron. Hancock is a superhero with superpowers, but also a lazy vagrant with no respect for authority. To top it all off, he is an alcoholic. Perhaps that will strike a chord with local audiences -- or perhaps it may cut rather too close to the bone.

Of the 16 films in the event's main competition, to be judged by a jury headed by actress and director Liv Ulmann and including Russian actress Irina Rozanova and the veteran British critic Derek Malcolm, there are two Russian films. Sergei Ovcharov's "The Cherry Orchard" is a period drama based on Chekhov's play and looks like a departure from the style of the director's previous work. Katya Shagalova's "Once Upon a Time in the Provinces" follows the return of a television star to her native small town, and the resulting reactions from its citizens.

There's an interesting choice of films from further afield as well.

Moscow International Film Festival
Will Smith stars in U.S. director Peter Berg's "Hancock," which opened the film festival Thursday.
Ukrainian director Roman Balayan, a legend in his homeland, screens his new film "Birds of Paradise," a story based on the atmosphere of the early 1980s from a script by his previous collaborator Rustam Ibragimbekov. German director Veit Helmer premieres "Absurdistan," a German-Azeri co-production set in a village in Azerbaijan in the 1990s. In a story which again may sound familiar to local audiences, the village struggles with a water problem, but the local women have an even greater problem to contend with: Their lazy men, who refuse to lift a finger to remedy the situation.

The rest of the main competition program is almost exclusively European, with the only American entry being Tom McCarthy's "The Visitor." China and Iran -- two nations whose film industries have acquired a high profile in recent years -- are represented respectively by Li Xin's "The War of the Shore," and Reza Mir Karimi's "As Simple As That."

The parallel "Perspectives" competition, dedicated to debut and more experimental work, has often proved more interesting in recent years, and has a much wider geographical reach this year than the main competition program. Russia is represented by two films out of 10, both documentaries. The first is a historical reflection on the making of Andrei Tarkovsky's classic film "Stalker" -- "Rerberg and Tarkovsky. The Reverse Side of 'Stalker'" from director Igor Maiboroda. Georgy Rerberg was Tarkovsky's longtime cinematographer, and their somewhat troubled relationship on that film is the main subject of Maiboroda's film.

Acclaimed documentarist Vitaly Mansky shows "Dawn/Sunset." It's clearly been a productive year for Mansky, given that he had another film, "Virginity," in the competition program at Kinotavr. But after the brutal Russian social reality depicted in that film, "Dawn/Sunset" is a significant departure in theme -- it depicts a day spent in the residence of the Dalai Lama in India. The film is an informal conversation in the Dalai Lama's private chamber on topics such as the place of a human being and religion in the modern society.

Such serious notes may conflict somewhat with the wider atmosphere of the festival, which is often perhaps better known for its pomp and circumstance than for its content. Festival president Nikita Mikhalkov will no doubt be resplendent in his trademark white silk scarf, and various glamorous parties with glamorous guests will no doubt follow. The festival's closing film will be Bosnian director Emir Kusturica's celebration of Argentine football hero Diego Maradona, capturing his odyssey from spectacular stardom to emotional collapse, and his subsequent rebirth. It's likely to prove an upbeat closing note. In between, it can only be hoped, much quality cinema will reach Moscow -- most of which is not likely to receive wide distribution here.

The Moscow International Film Festival runs to June 28. For highlights, see the calendar listings. Full listings at www.moscowfilmfestival.ru.