Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

A Perestroika Retrospective, Already

You know an idea is getting old when artsy types begin organizing retrospectives. Such is the fate of perestroika. The reform period begun under Mikhail Gorbachev is so firmly settled in the past that the Cinema Museum is offering a nostalgic tour of films made no more than 10 years ago.

The program includes three of the best perestroika-era films: Tengiz Abuladze's 1984 "Repentance," which was first publicly released in 1986; Vladimir Khotinenko's 1988 "Mirror for the Hero;" and Sergei Ovcharov's 1989 film, "It." Under perestroika and glasnost, Soviet filmmakers took a critical look at the past and tried to fill in the many blanks. Hundreds of sharp and disturbing documentaries and features suddenly appeared.

When "Repentance," a Georgian-made film, was first shown after its delayed release it became an instant sensation at international festivals and among the Moscow and Leningrad intelligentsia, although it never gained popularity among general moviegoers.

Abuladze's narration was purposefully indirect, creating a surrealist tale of horror, which although set in an imaginary time and place was plainly suggestive of Soviet reality.

The film is dominated by the grotesque figure of Varlam Aravidze, a composite of Stalin, Hitler and Mussolini, as well as of the cinematic Great Dictator of Charlie Chaplin. Resonating with religious undercurrents, Varlam is portrayed as a demonic figure whose satanic nature stands out in opposition to the Christ-like character of the artist Sandro Barateli.

The story spans three generations, including Varlam's son, Abel (both father and son are played masterfully by Avtondil Makharadze), who condones his father's crimes and capitalizes on the inheritance, and Varlam's rebellious grandson, Tornike, who rejects his tainted heritage.

The film's would-be heroine is Sandro's daughter Keti, who having learned of the tyrant's death fantasizes about avenging her family by exhuming Varlam's body and denying him a dignified burial. But she, like Abel, is ultimately unable to put her life on the line and the "repentance" of the title remains purely speculative.

"Mirror for the Hero" is a film with a different mood. It leaves the image of tyranny off-screen and follows the lives of ordinary people on an ordinary day in a mining town.

The director, however, does not deny himself a touch of the fantastic. The present-day hero finds himself by magic back in the year 1949, when he existed only in his mother's womb.

As a stranger he observes the life of his parents shaped by collective songs, marching tunes and radio propaganda, and is tortured by the impossibility of warning them about future disasters, or changing the course of events.

Back in the present, he is able to develop a compassionate relationship with his father, and to "forgive" him for the mistakes of the past. "Mirror" is a homage to the people of the older generation who felt personally attacked by the pervasive criticism of the period of their youth, and unfairly held responsible for the tragic events of those years.

In the film "It," history is not just a background but the protagonist. The film is based on the satirical tale "History of a Town" (1870) by Mikhail Saltykov-Shchedrin. The cinematic tone and style change with the epochs, from the slapstick of silent comedies and the sleek veneer of socialist realism to the grainy screen of the television.

It starts with the legendary Ryurik, the founder of the Russian state, and proceeds through the centuries with preposterous cameos of successive sovereigns and empresses. Thanks to a great performance by Rolan Bykov, who plays four roles, the character of Lenin fades into Stalin, then Beria, and then Khrushchev.

Another celebrated actor, Oleg Tabakov, plays a Brezhnev-like character whose interchangeable body parts are often sent to the repair shop for a quick fix.

Finally, the "nice guy" takes over. He is good-looking and well intentioned, but because of his liberal policies, social and political chaos ensue, a plot development that has turned out to be fairly prophetic.

Eventually, the democratic leader turns into an enforcer of law and order who leads the country into the next century -- an ecologically devastated wasteland populated by the regimented and dejected.

Let's hope the general pessimism of the perestroika films will remain just an artistic expression of an unsettled period.

The films are shown on the following days: "Repentance," Tuesday, Jan. 25; "Mirror for the Hero," Thursday, Jan. 27; "It," Saturday, Jan. 29. All shows start at 7 P.M. at the Museum of Cinema at the Cinema Center on Krasnaya Presnya.