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Think Russian film and you tend to think highbrow, of grim realism or of the surreal and challenging. You picture the maggots in the sailors’ rations or the frenetic montage of crowds under gunfire in Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin (1925); you grapple with the mind-bending metaphysics of Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris (1972); you squirm as a mother gives birth in the mud in Pavel Chukhrai’s Oscar-nominated The Thief (1997).
For decades, the Soviet system — censorious and intolerant of political dissent, yet unconcerned by anything as vulgar as a profit motive — ensured that Soviet films were, by their very nature, “uncommercial”. The result was an art-house tradition focused not on the box office but on cinematography and directors testing what they could get away with. It has earned Russian film-makers kudos among critics the world over.
Still championing that tradition today is Andrei Zvyagintsev, director of 2014’s Leviathan, which sailed close to the wind in its critique of corruption under Putin. His latest film Loveless, winner of a Jury Prize at Cannes this year — and hailed by the FT as “ austere and powerful” — is one of the stars of London’s Russian Film Week, which begins this Sunday.
However, a quite distinct thread running through the history of the USSR and now Russia is the imperative not to be outdone by the US — the most obvious examples being the arms race and the space race of the cold war. And at this year’s expanded festival (with more than twice as many venues as 2016’s edition, including the British Film Institute, Curzon Soho and Picturehouse Central), it appears that the Russians have not only the Pentagon or Nasa in their sights, but Hollywood as well. A glance at the programme suggests we may have to rethink the solid, worthy image of Russian cinema, a message that jumps off the screen with all the emphasis that amped-up emotion and no-holds-barred special effects can supply.
Take Dmitriy Kiselev’s Spacewalker, a kind of Russian riposte to Apollo 13. Like its American predecessor, it plays against a soaring soundtrack that leaves no doubt as to how you’re supposed to feel. There’s an unmistakably patriotic vein too, as pressure mounts during the 1965 Voskhod 2 mission for a cosmonaut to carry out a spacewalk before the pesky Americans. Although we can guess how it will end (or may even know, given that it’s based on fact) Spacewalker succeeds in immersing us in the plight of Alexey Leonov and Pavel Belyayev, trapped in their tiny space capsule as the top brass at mission control debate the value of saving their lives against the need to keep Soviet space technology secret.
Russian films are also staking a claim to another trope long monopolised by Hollywood: the alien invasion. This year’s opening gala feature Attraction posits a Moscow menaced by extraterrestrials, and is directed by Fyodor Bondarchuk, who previously cranked up the city-razing CGI in his video-game-like Stalingrad (2013). It’s not the first big-budget film to see Moscow laid waste in this way: the Russian-produced Darkest Hour did much the same in 2011, but had an American director and a multiplex-friendly anglophone cast. Attraction, however, is Russian through and through: a sign of confidence, perhaps, in both the domestic audience and the appetite of international distributors for such fare.
More eye-popping still is an unashamedly Russian rip-off of the X-Men franchise in the shape of Sarik Andreasyan’s The Guardians, about a team of superheroes created in secret during the cold war and summoned as Moscow burns after an onslaught by a supervillain. Its barrage of special effects-laden fights offers little that audiences haven’t seen before — except, of course, for the Russian-ness of its superheroes: Ursus, for example, transforms into (what else?) a bear with superpowered strength, while Xenia commands the powers of invisibility, walking on water and, in her own words, making “great borsch”.
On the centenary of revolution, patriotic eyes look to the past too, with Aleksey Uchitel’s Matilda, which has outraged Russian Christians by portraying the affair that Nicholas II (canonised as a saint by the Orthodox Church) had with ballerina Matilda Kshesinskaya. Protesters have even attempted arson attacks on Russian cinemas. The director has challenged his critics to see the film, insisting that it depicts nothing offensive. It might have been easier, though, to let this disappointing piece of royal-voyeurism speak for itself. Although lavishly done, with sumptuous costumes and gilded palace interiors, it drips melodrama and fails to generate any empathy for the lovers, especially Matilda herself, who far from exuding vulnerability, comes across as a scheming gold-digger.
For emotional authenticity, you have to come back down to Earth, specifically to some of the unlovelier corners of today’s Russia. Arrhythmia, screened at the Toronto International Film Festival this year, tackles the entrenched Russian social woes of alcoholism, divorce and a crisis in masculinity. Oleg, its paramedic hero, may save lives but has to battle a corrupt, target-fixated manager; worse still, his impulsiveness and drinking are driving his wife away. Boris Khlebnikov has directed a story of great humanity, in which emotional wounds prove far more intractable than physical ones.
Even bleaker is writer-director Ksenia Zueva’s emotionally visceral and ironically titled Nearest and Dearest, whose protagonists tear each other apart, caught in a spiral of domestic conflict and cruelty. It is painful to watch, yet so compelling that it’s hard to stop watching, and pulls off that fly-on-the wall quality that makes you forget that you’re watching actors.
With more than 20 feature films, the festival hopes to reach audiences outside London’s Russian diaspora. “We can now boast one-third non-Russian-speakers attending our events,” says festival director Filip Perkon.
Likewise, Russia’s film-makers are hoping that by playing Hollywood at its own game, they can pull in the crowds. The question is whether that aliens-and-superheroes arms race will put at risk the distinctiveness that has earned Russian cinema its decades-long renown.
November 19-26, russianfilmweek.org