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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Young Director Mines a Cinematic Klondike

At a time when veteran director Nikita Mikhalkov's Academy Award success has shone a fresh ray of hope onto Russia's struggling film industry, it is worth bearing in mind that the future of post-perestroika film lies in a rising generation of young filmmakers who were only beginning work as the Soviet system passed away. In his short career, Valery Todorovsky has already achieved recognition as one of the most commercially and artistically successful of this new generation.

The son of the well-known Soviet director, Pyotr Todorovsky, Valery was born in 1962 and grew up in the surroundings of the Odessa studios where his father worked. He says of filmmaking that "the disease entered my body virtually from the moment I was born. I couldn't imagine any other career."

He made his first film in 1990 -- "Catafalque," based on a Flannery O'Connor tale about a romance between a man and a mentally retarded woman. However, it was with his second picture "Lyobov," a simple but stylish film on the classic theme of first love, that he made his breakthrough on the international film-scene -- the film winning several prizes at the 1992 Cannes Festival.

"Lyubov's" European success made it possible for him to make his most recent movie "Podmoskovniye Vechera" or "Moscow Nights" as a co-production with French filmmakers. The film is an update on Nikolai Leskov's classic "Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk" about a woman who is driven through passion to murder.

At first blush it would seem that Todorovsky is treading the same trail toward foreign cooperation blazed by Mikhalkov, whose recent films have also been coproductions. But any similarity between the two artists stops here. Mikhalkov has won his place in Western hearts by presenting a nostalgic and nationalistic vision of Russia and its enigmatic soul. Like most of his generation, he sees film as having a vital role in redeeming the nation. Todorovsky, by contrast, sees himself an essentially international director, whose first duty is to entertain rather than to enlighten.

One can see his cosmopolitan tendencies in the way he has turned his southwest Moscow home, on the fifth floor of an otherwise typically Soviet apartment block, into the kind of yuppie pad one could find anywhere from Seattle to Stockholm. The walls are white, the furniture comfortable and uncluttered, the kitchen fitted with pine panelling. Todorovsky himself, a smallish, energetic man, with a floppy fringe of hair and large round glasses, has more the look of an advertising executive than of a tortured artist. His manner is direct, self-confident and though humorous has none of the studied irony so common among Russia's "creative intelligentsia."

But, if he aspires to match his work to international standards, he also recognizes that this is no easy task for a Russian filmmaker today. Soviet cinema had, in his opinion, many weak points. One was the failure to recognize the importance of film editing, which Todorovsky says has resulted in anemic pacing. Another weakness was lack of synchronous sound recording technology, which meant that actors had to dub the soundtrack after shooting, making the best-acted dialogue sound stilted and unnatural to Western ears. When asked if any filmmaking professions were better developed in the Soviet Union than in the West, he replies with mock hubris: "Only our directors!"

However, he confesses to feeling defeated by the sorest point of all in Russian cinema today: the inability of filmmakers to reach their audience. "The whole system of distribution has collapsed and no new one has come into being ... There are no figures, no one knows how many people have seen your film, how much the tickets cost, how many theaters have shown it. They say that the local distributors get huge sums, but they don't declare that money. So not even the shrewdest businessman can return the average movie's budget."

While he agrees that the sorry state of film distribution is part of the country's general crisis, he laughs at the idea -- unlike many of his older colleagues -- that his films have any contribution to make to Russia's welfare. He says categorically,"One of the first things I understood about cinema, even as a student, was that film, like every art, has no educational role. Cinema can't change anyone or anything. So I understand it would be naive and stupid to try ... I think it's a feature of the new generation of Russian filmmakers that they don't try to educate anyone. They understand that cinema should entertain people and give them pleasure, and if possible to create some original, new world."

It may appear that the grim realities of Russian life today make Todorovsky's task of finding entertaining subject matter difficult at best. Not so, he says, "Russia today is a cinematic Klondike ... All you have to do is to change your point of view. Instead of taking a tragic view of life and covering your head with ashes, you need to start laughing at it. It's a country on the boil, at any moment you could get murdered or fall in love. It's enough to look at the city from other eyes and see the horror and the strangeness and the humor in everything."

After directing three melodramas he says that he is planning to make a comedy set in a Moscow hospital. Having been plagued much of his life by a chronic stomach ulcer, he has had plenty of opportunity to see hospital life at first hand and now he wants, as he wryly puts it, "to make some money out of the experience."

Todorovsky wants to make films that people will pay to watch but he does not, he says "plan to go into competition with Stephen Spielberg." Of course, he says, "the audience is important. But I also know that as soon as I start making things only to please them I'll lose interest. So I try to do what I want."

Todorovsky recalls an incident in the filming of "Lyubov" which illustrates the way in which this independent approach gave an original touch to one of the most traditional moments in movie-making. "As you'd expect, the characters in the film had to spend a lot of time kissing each other. It was filmed in the winter and half the scenes were outside. So of course the actors' lips got sore and when, after one particularly prolonged clinch, I told them to stop kissing, they separated with their mouths bleeding, leaving bits of skin on each others lips. When a French friend saw the scene he exclaimed, 'Now that's real love. C'est tres Russe!'"

Todorovsky's film "Moscow Nights" is showing (in Russian) at 7 p.m. May 2, 9, 16, 23 and 30 in hall 6 of the Cinema Center on Krasnaya Presnya, which is located at 15 Druzhinnikovskya Ul, tel. 205-7306. Nearest metro: Barrikadnaya.