The Russian Resurrection 2008 film festival opens in Melbourne on Wednesday evening with veteran director Karen Shakhnazarov's latest film, Vanished Empire. The festival honours Shakhnazarov with a retrospective that includes seven earlier works: Zero City, We Are Jazz Men, American Daughter, Rider Named Death, Courier, The Assassin of the Tsar and Day of the Full Moon. A second retrospective features Russian fantasy films Amphibian Man and Letters from a Deadman. Other than Vanished Empire, the festival includes 10 films, most notably (for me, at least) is The Banishment by Andrei Zvyagintev (The Return, 2003).
Vanished Empire (Ischeznuvshaya imperiya, Karen Shakhnazarov, Russia, 2008)
This is a beautiful-looking film, technically proficient in every respect. It's an homage to the Russia of times past, to the days of the Soviet Union. The protagonist, Sergei, is a narcissistic first-year university student who is more interested in the Rolling Stones, vodka and bedding girls than studying. Sergei is a mere teenager, of a similar age to what Shakhnazarov would have been in the year of the film's setting, 1973, so one suspects there is something personal in this story.
This film should appeal immensely to a mainstream audience, but left me a little cold. I found it a little contrived, particularly with the western soundtrack and also because I couldn't empathise with the main character. Plausibility was a little stretched at times. The strong points are the excellent visuals and the cultural depictions, such as the cars of the day.
The Banishment (Izgnanie, Andrei Zvyagintev, Russia, 2007)
I have only just learnt that Andrei Zvyagintev's The Return was his feature film debut. Now, I've got to say it really impressed me with it's sparse and elusive narrative, filled with mystery and ambiguity. It is visually spectacular, with a strong Eastern European aesthetic that one can't look away from. The Banishment is no less a film.
This is a much more ambitious effort than Zvyagintev's debut. Again he has crafted a story that is highly enigmatic. It stars Konstantin Lavronenko, who played the role of the absent father returned in The Return. Alex is a man with a shady past and his brother Mark (Aleksandr Baluyev) is of the same ilk. When Alex's wife, Vera (Maria Bonnevie), reveals she is pregnant and that he is not the father, a sequence of events unfolds that will have you on the edge of your seat. "If you want to kill, kill. If you want to forgive, forgive", says Mark.
The tension is palpable, magnified by the sparse dialogue. In one sense, words are not needed as the body language says it all. Yet in another, the inability of the protagonists to bring out into the open what needs to be said leads to unforseen consequences. This is both thematically similar to Nuri Bilge Ceylan's similarly excellent Three Monkeys and stylistically they also share much in common. As in Ceylan's films, Zvyagintev shows great confidence in telling a story, taking his time to create a palpable ambience. At 157 minutes, the film is quite long, but always engaging.
The cinematography is stunning throughout, with excellent use of the widescreen. There is one tracking shot in particular that left me breathless as the camera seemingly floated through space. I can recall only twice where the camera movement impressed me so: the caravan sequence in Noise and the various tracking shots in Soy Cuba. The use of darkness, light and shade are used to great effect. The music is haunting, reminding me of the gothic sounds of the music of Enigma. It renders the film with a sense of tragedy of biblical proportions.
Zvyagintev is a magnificent talent that just can't be ignored. If you see only one Russian film this year, make it The Banishment.
The Russian Resurrection film festival screens at Palace Como Cinema from 29 October to 5 November.
Vanished Empire is the Opening Night film, screening Wed 29 November, 7.00pm.
The Banishment screens on Sun 2 November, 9.10pm.