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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Russian Cinema Reborn

Nearly obliterated in the social and financial chaos of perestroika, Russian film makes a strong comeback, led by energetic, young directors.

By Andrei Plakhov

The centennial of Russian film, in 1996, nearly went down as the year of its death. Just 20 films were released that year, rivaling only the repressive years leading up to Stalin's death in 1953 in dearth of production. Amid unprecedented inflation and the collapse of the state filmmaking and distribution system, the industry had spiraled downward to a historic low. It appeared making a movie in Russia had become an unaffordable luxury.

Now a new Russian cinema appears in the making. The influx of Hollywood films, together with a mood of nostalgia, has revived interest in moviegoing. Last year production jumped with the release of 50 films. Dominating the directing scene is a younger generation of filmmakers who use contemporary plots and characters but borrow themes from classic film and literature. The industry is slowly moving toward making films with universal and commercial appeal.

Last year's most talked about film was provocative director Alexei Balabanov's "Brat" (Brother), about a disillusioned Chechen war veteran who becomes a violent, lone vigilante in St. Petersburg and Moscow. Reflecting the influence of American movies in its moralistic plot, this Russian "Rambo" has been phenomenally successful on video, especially among younger audiences. The antihero -- played by Sergei Bodrov Jr., whose career took off after the 1996 "Kavkazsky Plennik" (Prisoner of the Caucasus) -- is a killer with ideals and morals. In the West, such a character would be identified with the far right. In Russia, the nationalistic -- and anti-Semitic -- soldier falls in step with the left, embodying a working class protest against a harsh system with no concern for the weak.

The recurring role of the social avenger, in "Brat" and many other current films, has been transformed from the Soviet revolutionary hero to one who fights to vindicate people who suffered under communism. Up-and-coming Denis Yevstigneyev is currently shooting "Mama," loosely based on a true incident, about a woman and her five children who hijack a plane in order to free a son from a psychiatric institution. Sergei Ursulyak's just finished "Sochineniye ko Dnyu Pobedy" (Victory Day Essay) also features a hijacking, by World War II veterans fed up with corruption and post-Soviet bureaucracy. Russian viewers will find "Victory Day Essay" especially poignant because the aging avengers are played by film idols from the 1960s and 1970s: Vyacheslav Tikhonov, Mikhail Ulyanov, Oleg Yefremov and Nonna Mordyukova.

Most recent films are heavily populated with the so-called New Russians, but even these characters often embody traditional roles. In Ivan Dykhovichny's "Muzyka dlya Dekabrya" (Music for December), a flabby, unkempt rich man commits hara-kiri Russian style, fatally stabbing himself after an all-out drinking bout. Addressing the suffering of the new rich, the film's other characters are also unhappy, psychologically shattered individuals. Their sadomasochism and anger toward society recall the wandering souls from a Dostoevsky novel.

Dostoevsky also shows up in Valery Todorovsky's "Strana Glukhikh" (Land of the Deaf). In this film, two young girls fight for survival in harsh, mafia-infested Moscow. One values money above all else. The other, who lowers herself even to prostitution in her self-sacrificing love for her boyfriend, is a modern-day version of Sonya Marmeladova from "Crime and Punishment." In "Moskva," screenwriters Alexander Zeldovich and Vladimir Sorokin parody Chekhov's "Three Sisters." After finally moving to the capital and buying a hip night club, a mother and two daughters still cannot overcome their hang-ups and neuroses.

To understand the significance of the budding new Russian cinema, it is necessary to view the background from where it came. Although the country has produced some of the world's finest films, until the collapse of the Soviet Union the industry was never free of political constraints. Pre-revolutionary films -- mostly literary adaptations -- heeded the censorship of the tsar. After the revolution, the Bolsheviks were among the first to recognize the medium's value as a propaganda tool. Two of the most brilliant Soviet directors, Sergei Eisenstein and Alexander Dovzhenko, managed to make some of their greatest works in the 1920s under Bolshevik command. In the 1930s, an attempt was made to combine ideology and Hollywood-style entertainment, typified by Grigory Alexandrov's musical comedy "Jolly Fellows." The 1960s celebrated the triumph of intellectual directors such as Andrei Tarkovsky. In the early 1980s, another attempt was made to emulate Hollywood, which produced the Oscar-winning dramatic comedy "Moscow Doesn't Believe in Tears" -- a classic story of a provincial girl trying to make it in the big city. Such Hollywood adaptations of Soviet realities was declared the new pattern for the industry.

Then, in May 1986, everything turned upside down. At the Fifth Congress of Soviet Filmmakers, the Soviet Filmmakers Union proclaimed market reforms and broke up their organization into individual guilds. It gave studios financial and creative independence, and assumed perestroika filmmakers would seize the opportunity of new freedom to avenge the years of political censorship, making movies with the penetrating style of Tarkovsky as their model.

Awaiting a perestroika revolution of message-laden films, the union was caught off guard when the newly freed industry produced a rapid series of sensational political expos?s, the most notable of which was Georgian director Tengiz Abuladze's satire about Stalin, "Repentance." Veteran directors, like Nikita Mikhalkov who directed the Oscar-winning "Burnt by the Sun," continued their painstaking craft. Most of the industry then threw itself into exploiting the once-prohibited but popularly longed-for subjects of sex and violence. Prostitutes, killers, mafiosi, homosexuals and drug addicts became the favorite characters. A few, like Vasily Pichul's enormously popular "Little Vera" -- about an alienated working class girl -- were fresh, insightful portraits of contemporary society, but the overwhelming majority offered nothing substantial or entertaining. Most films were hastily made by upstart private companies as production soared to 400 films a year. At first enticed by the novelty of the seedy societal snapshots, the public quickly cooled toward them. Russia's perestroika cinema was a theater of horrors.

Just as it rejected the perestroika film, the Russian audience balked at the poor representation of American movies entering the market. Fearing piracy, in the early 1990s, major U.S. filmmakers refused to risk their better products, exporting only B-grade films. Low quality equipment and uncomfortable seats, not to mention growing street crime, pushed moviegoing further out of fashion. People turned to television and pirated videos.

But some investors still gambled their faith on Russia's love of the movies. In October 1996, Eastman Kodak and Los Angeles-based Golden Ring Entertainment opened Moscow's first modern movie theater for Russian audiences, Kodak Cinema World. Media mogul Vladimir Gusinsky and Sergei Livnev, president of Gorky Studios, have plans to open new theaters in cities throughout Russia. From observing the success of Kodak, investors have reason to be optimistic. Tickets at the theater cost an average of $20 and were twice that much for the Moscow premier of "Titanic." Still, the theater is often full, with scalpers doing good business by the entrance. The new theaters specialize in Hollywood films with Russian dubbing or subtitles.

Despite predictions that American blockbusters would muscle out domestic films, on the contrary, Hollywood whetted the appetite for Russian movies. Television has also revived interest in domestic productions by airing old films -- many of which have cult followings -- and by investing in film production. NTV launched its own studio, NTV-Profit, and ORT has financed various films. Indicating Russian cinema's transformation from perestroika's theater of horrors to one of hope and pride, these days there is often patriotic applause when the symbol of the former state film company, Mosfilm, a giant Soviet sculpture of a factory and a collective farm worker, appears on the screen.

Perestroika's 10-year-span also ushered out the old guard. Mikhalkov -- equated by many in the West with the Russian film industry -- is currently the only successful director beyond 50 years of age. At just under $30 million, his nearly completed "Sibirsky Tsiryulnik" (The Barber of Siberia) is the most expensive movie production in Russian cinema history. Mikhalkov's older brother, Andrei Konchalovsky, has been spending more time at social gatherings or writing his memoirs recently than in film studios. Elem Klimov, who oversaw the perestroika of the industry as the 1986 head of the filmmakers union, hasn't made a film since his 1985 "Come and See." Living classics Alexei German and Gleb Panfilov are struggling with their respective drawn-out projects, a film noir on Stalinism and a movie on the family of the last tsar.

The majority of active directors today are in their 30s and 40s. Many of them work closely with Gorky Studios, which has become a driving force behind low-budget filmmaking and the explosive numbers of new films. Gorky Studios specializes in sexy, sometimes quirky, thrillers, styled after Alfred Hitchcock, David Lynch and Quentin Tarantino. But the films all center around current Russian reality, such as Nikolai Lebedev's "Zmeiny Istochnik" (Sudden Spring), a portrayal of provincial morality, and Ilya Makarov's "Telo budet predano zemle. A starshy michman budet pet" (The Captain's Body Will be Buried and the Senior Warrant Officer Will Sing his Song) about the subculture of St. Petersburg youth.

The more mainstream films are coming out of NTV-Profit and Mosfilm -- which, like Gorky, still remains almost completely in state hands. Mosfilm had some success with the comedy "Shirli-Myrli" (What a Mess), directed by Vladimir Menshov, who made "Moscow Doesn't Believe in Tears." A noteworthy project from NTV-Profit is Kira Muratova's twisted and engaging "Tri Istorii" (Three Stories). The director began her work during the Khrushchev thaw and has managed to successfully continue making films in her intense and ironic style.

As Russia's first completely private studio, NTV-Profit's interests lie primarily in creating films that appeal to the widest audience. Pavel Chukhrai's "Vor" (The Thief), nominated this year for a Best Foreign Film Oscar, has been its biggest success so far. Most of "Vor" takes place in the early 1950s. The film opens with Katya, a young widow, and her 6-year-old son, Sanya, meeting a handsome military officer on a train. The young woman falls for the officer, Tolyan, and they begin living together, traveling from city to city. Sanya, strikingly performed by child star Misha Filipchuk, is initially jealous of Tolyan, but later takes to him as a father-figure. Katya and Sanya soon realize that Tolyan is not the man he makes himself out to be, but rather a professional thief. They still continue to give him their love, effectively becoming his accomplices. After Katya dies, Sanya is sent to an orphanage. The boy carries feelings of love and hate for Tolyan throughout his life.

Sanya's complex feelings for Tolyan are a metaphor for an entire generation's love-hate relationship with Stalin. The film carries a relatively new political perspective, but is seeped in the Soviet film tradition of treating themes of war and humanity. "Vor" is strongly reminiscent of the works of the director's father, Grigory Chukhrai, who was among the first directors to attempt to convey the horrors of Stalin's rule in films such as the 1959 "Ballad of a Soldier" and the 1961 "Clear Skies." That period coincides with the heyday of Italian neorealist film, led by Vittorio De Sica's "Bicycle Thief" and Federico Fellini's "The Nights of Cabiria." "Vor" is a combination of these two films -- about a father and son united in their fight against poverty, and about a woman who gives selfless love to a thief.

At the end of "Vor," the adult Sanya is commanding a war in a place highly suggestive of Chechnya. The abrupt leap in time is the film's major flaw. But that wasn't the ending American viewers saw. Chukhrai made a new, shorter and more heart-rending ending for his Oscars submission and the American video market. In a similar emphasis on broad, commercial appeal, Sergei Bodrov refrained from touching on the political issues surrounding war in his 1996 "Prisoner of the Caucasus," which starred his son. The film never mentions Chechnya although it is obviously based on that conflict. "Prisoner of the Caucasus" was a 1997 Best Foreign Film Oscar nominee and won the International Critics Award at Cannes that year.

The new awareness of the mass audience won't completely eradicate the finer and more progressive forms of Russian filmmaking tradition. "Mat i Syn" (Mother and Son), Alexander Sokurov's 1997 portrayal of a dying mother and her caring son, is a visually striking masterpiece that captures the universality of human intimacy. Sokurov and a handful of other directors are likely to survive, although in the narrow genre of the art film.

The recent string of good films and the surge in production has proved the vitality of the Russian film industry. Its strong emergence from the chaos of perestroika is a good reason for optimism.