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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Russia Seeks Football Glory in Venice

MTVainshtein posing with football memorabilia in his office on Pushkin Square. George Soros and other well-known people have signed the board behind him.
Russian football has not had a successful summer in Europe. Lokomotiv Moscow flopped against Rapid Vienna, CSKA Moscow was left trophyless in Monaco, and the national team couldn't even eke a win out of Latvia.

Instead, it has been left to a low-budget football film to win glory in Europe. This would not be a victory for today's Russian football, however, but for a game from a long time ago.

Alexei German Jr.'s "Garpastum" was selected for competition at the Venice Film Festival, where it will be screened for the media on Wednesday. The festival jury will have the chance to judge its merits on Thursday.

Named after an ancient Greek ball game that predates football, "Garpastum" tells the story of two football-mad brothers and their passion for the game on the eve of World War I. It is a film about how the looming war and revolution will affect everyone's lives, but also about how football remains the same, said Alexander Vainshtein, a veteran football journalist who co-wrote the screenplay.

Upon hearing the words "brothers" and "football," there is only one major association for those who know about Soviet football: Spartak Moscow and the legendary Starostin brothers. It was the four Starostin brothers who helped to found Spartak Moscow in the mid-1930s, although they had been immersed in football since before the Revolution. Nikolai Starostin would be involved for another half-century.

"Garpastum" traces the game's history in Russia through the disciplined reminiscences of the patriarch of Soviet football, Nikolai Starostin, which Vainshtein recorded in the 1980s. Nikolai Starostin's autobiography "Football Through the Years," which was ghostwritten by Vainshtein, told for the first time the story of how the brothers were sent to the gulag on trumped-up charges of promoting "bourgeois sport" in 1942, of the bitter enmity between Dynamo and Spartak, and of Lavrenty Beria's hatred for the Starostin brothers. Among his reminiscences were tales of pre-Revolutionary games that Starostin, who was born in 1902, took part in.

Now better known as the producer of musicals such as "Metro," Vainshtein is a successful businessman. But he said he felt indebted to Starostin, and to Lev Filatov, the legendary editor of the "Football" weekly who tapped him to write Starostin's autobiography.

"It is the return of a moral debt, a sign of respect to Filatov and Starostin," Vainshtein said. "It is my return for all the understanding they gave me about football."

It remains to be seen how "Garpastum" will fare alongside a strong films by directors including Terry Gilliam, Abel Ferrara, Ang Lee, Park Chan-wook and Krzysztof Zanussi in the competition section. Two years ago, Andrei Zvyagintsev's film "The Return" won the Golden Lion award at the festival. German won a Golden Lion for best debut with "The Last Train" the same year.

Sitting in his plush office on Pushkin Square, a few hundred meters from where Starostin lived, Vainshtein recently recalled his meetings with Starostin, who was then in his late 80s and still the head of Spartak. He said Starostin would open his door at exactly 3 p.m. It was only after he was late for a few visits and found the door standing open, Vainshtein recalled, that he realized he was expected to be there at 3 o'clock on the dot.

Starostin was a man whose life was football. In the prologue to the autobiography, Vainshtein famously writes how Starostin gave his life to football and how in return football saved his life. During his 12 years in the gulag, Starostin was shunted from camp to camp, but each time he was picked by the camp commandants to run the football team, a job that shielded him from many of the gulag's hardships.

Filatov was a talented writer who chose football as a way to escape the repression of the time, Vainshtein said. The freedom possible when writing about football was something unobtainable in other subject areas.

Vainshtein initially planned a series of films about the brothers, beginning with the pre-Revolutionary years, inspired by Starostin's recounting of the great passion for the game that existed then. However, with the help of German and co-writer Oleg Antonov, the film's story mutated into something unique, although the brothers' names, Nikolai and Andrei, remain the same as those of the two most famous Starostin brothers.

In the film, football is also the lifeblood of the brothers, a bug they pick up from their father, who goes mad after losing all his money when Russia is thrashed at the Olympics.

Films and football have had a difficult time, with few directors being able to convincingly shoot onfield scenes. German and Vainshtein think they have succeeded by placing as much emphasis on the football action as on the acting.

"The most important thing is the casting. In other films, they cast the actors and then teach them football," Vainshtein said. "We had the football in the casting. ... If they could play football, they could go on to casting."

Still, Vainshtein and German both insist that "Garpastum" is not a sports film -- and there are indeed very few films in which viewers get to see both Alexander Blok and football, as happens in "Garpastum."

Football is a constant that remains even if the world collapses around you, Vainshtein said. At the end of the film, the brothers return from the war to a different country and, without taking off their uniforms, begin to play on a pitch, in front of a tumbledown building symbolizing the remains of Russia.