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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Konchalovsky's Quest: Art Among the Ruins

Somewhere in Moscow's vast and labyrinthine Mosfilm studios, down a faceless and seemingly endless corridor, is Andrei Konchalovsky's office; one of the small islands of order and affluence that private wealth has built amid the stagnation and decay of the post-Soviet film industry.


It is an island from which he now, carefully and determinedly, is organizing the production of his next film, an adaptation of Andr? Malraux's novel, "The Royal Way," about a young man confronting the savagery of the Far East. It is a subject which neatly mirrors Konchalovsky's own preoccupation with conflict between East and West.


Through a combination of an international reputation acquired over 30 years of filmmaking, and the personal wealth accumulated in his 10 years as a Hollywood director, Konchalovsky, 58, has survived the collapse that befell the Russian film industry with the end of government financing. He is still best known in the West from the action movies he made there; his "Runaway Train" (1985), and "Tango and Cash" (1990) were box office hits in the United States. But it is for his Russian films that he will be remembered. Some of these, such as "The First Teacher" (1965) and "Siberiade" (1978), have become Soviet classics; and one, the extraordinary "Andrei Rublyov" (1966), a three-hour epic on the life of the 14th century icon painter which he co-wrote with the late Andrei Tarkovsky, has now entered the canon of world cinema.


The brother of director Nikita Mikhalkov, whose "Burnt by the Sun" won an Oscar for Best Foreign film last year, and the son of a celebrated children's poet who wrote the words to the Soviet national anthem, Konchalovsky hails from an old aristocratic and artistic family which weathered the Revolution and eventually found favor with the Soviet leadership. (Mikhalkov has carried on this tradition, running in the last Duma election as a top candidate of Our Home Is Russia, Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin's "party of power.")


Three times married, most recently to television newscaster Irina Martinova, Konchalovsky has seen his eldest son, Yegor, continue the family tradition and follow his father into filmmaking.


Konchalovsky himself grew up among the shestidesyatniki (men of the 1960s), a golden generation of Russian artists which blossomed in the atmosphere of economic boom and relative cultural freedom of that period.


"I grew up in a relatively mild authoritarian system," said Konchalovsky, in a recent interview in his roomy, well-appointed office at the studios. "I don't think that, as filmmakers, we were extremely suppressed."


Early film successes made him a rising star among Soviet directors and bred a well-known artistic rivalry between him and Tarkovsky. Then, in 1967, he made "Asya's Happiness," about a single mother trying to bring up her illegitimate child in rural Russia. Its social realism proved incompatible with the Socialist Realism of Soviet artistic orthodoxy and the film was banned for 25 years.


Despite the ban, Konchalovsky is quick to disown any dissident credentials; indeed, he is surprisingly disparaging of the idea of dissidence itself. "I wasn't making films as part of a struggle," he said, "I just made it as an artist." Unlike some other banned directors, Konchalovsky's career survived.


In his 30 years as a filmmaker, Konchalovsky has traced a fine line between artistic integrity on the one hand, and the demands of both Soviet censors and Hollywood commercial pressures on the other. His facility for this has helped make him, by Russian standards, a phenomenally successful director. But, at the same time, he has been attacked by critics who claim Konchalovsky has sacrificed content for form in his films. The current production of "The Royal Way" is an attempt to make a film which will be both popular and have something to say.


It was not always thus. Many of his American films are purely commercial productions -- he has admitted to having made "Tango and Cash" strictly "for the money" -- but with his return to Russia, Konchalovsky has regained control over his productions, even if he is not able to command the budgets he used to. His two films since then embody a love-hate relationship with his own country.


"The Inner Circle" (1991), confronts the legacy of Stalinism and is, in Konchalovsky's own words, "a film about forgiveness; and forgiveness is especially necessary today because without it there is no democracy." In his most recent film, "Ryaba My Chicken" (1994), the social realism of "Asya's Happiness" gives way to social satire as rural opposition to the market is represented as peasants' unwillingness to take responsibility for their own lives, rather than as a protest against hardship and inequality. It was not well-received in Russia.


"They hate it!" said Konchalovsky gleefully, taking the film's unpopularity as confirmation that it had accurately touched a nerve in the Russian psyche.


He explained: "The Orthodox mentality is a collective consciousness. People aren't responsible, they don't feel responsible; they always find someone else who is: God, the tsar, the government, Stalin, Brezhnev. No one wants to admit something is their fault."


That's why, he said, "this society isn't ready either for personal freedom or democracy -- and I don't think it ever will be. And, that's not a bad thing." There are plenty of other societies, he said, where this is also true; "Look at India, look at the Moslem world. These places have the same problems. And they not only muddle through, they have their own order, one that we Westerners don't consider very progressive. So what?"


On the one hand, Konchalovsky is critical of the "Russian mentality" for what he sees as an unwillingness to adapt to the modern world; on the other, he is defending it against that world, against the Western beliefs of what he called "education, progress, humanism: All those beautiful things that basically gave birth to Communism."


The film critic Andrei Shemyakin has said of Konchalovsky that he "faces the problem of a ruined mythology." That "mythology" is Western humanism and the problem is one of what purpose art can have in its absence. The traditional Russian role for the artist as teacher, which lent itself so readily to humanism's belief in progress, has been lost to both Konchalovsky and to post-Soviet audiences. This has left the director with an artistic crisis of purpose. "His problem is one of plot, of what to tell," said Shemyakin.


There is some agreement among Russian critics that, so far at least, the films Konchalovsky has produced since his return from Hollywood have not been as strong as his earlier, Soviet ones. Shemyakin points to "The Inner Circle's" unsuccessful approach to Stalinism through the Western film genres of "Hollywood melodrama."


Irana Ismailova, director of the Moscow Filmmakers' Guild, suggests that working inside the Hollywood movie-making "machine" can blunt a foreign director's talent. Konchalovsky's dependency on Western funding for his films has also led to accusations that he is now making movies primarily for foreign, rather than Russian audiences.


It is an easy guess that this problematic relationship with his own country is behind Konchalovsky's adaptation of Malraux's novel.


"I'm interested in the interaction between the Western mentality and others, " the director said. "There is a great illusion that the Western mentality can change everything and bring human rights and democracy, and that a democratically elected government will always be better than governments brought about by coups. This is a great illusion, proved so many times; for example, in Somalia and Georgia."


And, when will the film go into production? "I've no idea," said Konchalovsky, who has criticized Russian filmmakers for expecting the state to hand them money on a plate. "I have no money yet."