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The special effects are as jaw-dropping as Gravity, the peril as knife-edge as Apollo 13. Look closely, and you’ll even spot a sly nod to 2001: A Space Odyssey. But this orbital thrill ride doesn’t come courtesy of Hollywood or Nasa: no, we’re aboard Salyut-7, a lavish blockbuster screening this year at the UK’s Russian Film Week.
It’s a galaxy away from the space-station setting of Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1972 Solaris, the whole point of which was brain-boggling existentialism rather than anything as on-the-nose as action or visuals. Still, Salyut-7 isn’t the first Russian film to splurge on CGI in a bid to say, “we’re a space-race superpower too”: there was also last year’s Spacewalk, a paean to the Nasa-beating pioneers of the Gagarin era.
In Salyut-7, which is based on the real-life disaster that saw the titular Soviet space station spin catastrophically out of control, the setting is the USSR in 1985, and director Klim Shipenko has fun with the period details, from mission control’s clunky telephones and old-school computers to the cute bear mascot of Moscow’s 1980 Olympics dangling in the Soyuz cockpit.
Yet rather than indulging in nostalgia for the Soviet Union, this is a wry, knowing look back at a time when Mikhail Gorbachev had taken over as leader, promising truth and glasnost about the wrongs committed by the USSR. Fake news, back then, seemed to be in retreat. The only hint of cold war antagonism is felt in references to the US’s “Star Wars” programme.
The temptation, for western Russia-watchers, is to try to scan films such as these for signs of the political weather. Do we detect defiance of censorship, of the ban on “homosexual propaganda”? Are subversive messages critical of Vladimir Putin getting smuggled under the radar? Or is the country’s cinematic output obliged to toe the line for fear of losing state funds? The truth is more nuanced: Russia’s film-makers can and do get away with decrying the nation’s past, its corruption, and social woes such as divorce or alcoholism, as long as they steer clear of political no-go areas — criticising Putin, for instance, or “promoting” homosexuality.
This year, though, Russia has barely been out of our headlines: from the sanctions and war of words that followed the novichok poisonings to Russia’s hosting of the World Cup; from its military involvement in Syria to this week’s naval clashes with Ukraine.
“At a time of political tensions, we believe it’s more important than ever to build cross-cultural bridges between Russia and the UK,” says film week director Filip Perkon. He acknowledges that the nosedive in London-Moscow relations posed a threat, earlier this year, to the funding of the festival’s 2018 edition. But then, he says, “things calmed down, our funders returned . . . and we are hosting our biggest event yet.” That said, the festival’s expansion is modest compared with its growth from 2016 to 2017, when the number of venues doubled.
The World Cup, Perkon notes, had the effect of boosting curiosity about Russia. And one film unashamedly poised to cash in on the tournament is The Coach, in the festival’s closing gala screening. Directed by and starring Danila Kozlovsky, it tells of a national squad star who has it all — fame, money, flashy car — but loses the lot after a Cantona-like brawl at a televised match. Disgraced and disqualified, he escapes to the Black Sea to coach small-town club Meteor, where he has to battle apathy and corruption. When foregrounding the locals’ suspicion of the bigshot from Moscow, the film is on gritty, social-realist terrain. Unfortunately, its “inspirational” can-do message, hammered home over lingering shots of football training sessions, descends into schmaltz during the movie’s climax.
In the political arena, one Russian director who has fallen foul of the authorities is Kirill Serebrennikov, whose Cannes competition film Leto was completed while under house arrest in Moscow this year. Serebrennikov is ostensibly awaiting trial for embezzling state funds, a charge dismissed by his defenders as nakedly political. He is an outspoken critic of censorship and, in his other life as a theatre director, saw the Bolshoi’s premiere of his ballet Nureyev postponed seemingly because it touched on homosexuality.
Leto, set in Leningrad’s fledgling rock music scene in the early 1980s, is scathing of censorship too, mocking the way the Party policed youthful audiences to suppress their urge to dance. It’s also a love letter to western rock, imbuing contraband recordings of Bowie and T-Rex with the allure of forbidden fruit. The title means “summer”, suggesting “summer of love”, and it follows a ménage à trois between a young woman and two musicians, one of them the Russian rock icon Viktor Tsoi. Its evocation of Soviet youth culture owes a debt to 1986’s taboo-breaking documentary Is It Easy to be Young? while its black-and-white cinematography suffuses Leto with the elegiac feel of 1950s classics such as Grigory Chukhrai’s Ballad of a Soldier or Mikhail Kalatozov’s The Cranes are Flying.
It’s pushing it to single out a film that could be construed as an endorsement of Putinism — but that film might just be Mikhail Raskhodnikov’s Temporary Difficulties, whose story of a boy growing up with cerebral palsy broke ground in Russia. It opens with shocking scenes of Sasha’s sadistic father Oleg abandoning his son in a forest, forcing him to crawl his way out. Oleg also wrecks Sasha’s wheelchair and sends him to a “normal” school where he is pitilessly bullied.
But in its final act the film performs an about-turn that’s hard to swallow: it transpires that Oleg was right to be “cruel to be kind” after all, and that Sasha’s success as Russia’s top business consultant (fast-forward to money-mad 21st-century Moscow) is all thanks to his father pushing him so hard. Could this be read as the Russians’ perennial hankering for a strong leader?
A similar message surfaces in Avdotya Smirnova’s historical drama The Story of One Assignment, screened on the festival’s opening night. Here, Grigory Kolokoltsev, a 19th-century officer from a privileged family, enters the Russian imperial army brimming with noble intentions to bring learning and enlightenment to the ranks. His inspiration is Tolstoy, but the crushing of his idealism is pure Chekhov. “Treat a Russian nicely and you’ll come to regret it,” he is told — a variant of Oleg’s “cruel to be kind” mentality, even if the criticism here is limited to the tsarist past.
But without wider audiences, can Russian cinema shine any light on a country that sees itself as so maligned in the west? Although distribution deals figure during the festival, for one film much also hinges on next year’s foreign-language Oscar. Russia’s entry is another film week highlight, the harrowing Sobibor, which re-enacts the 1943 uprising that Soviet officer Aleksandr Pechersky led inside a Nazi extermination camp. Director Konstantin Khabensky plays Pechersky (opposite Christopher Lambert as the camp commandant) in a movie full of audience-jolting violence. Its fate at the Oscars, as well as the prospects of any of these films making it to a big screen near you might still depend, ultimately, on the politics of it all.
To December 2, russianfilmweek.org
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