Boris Fishman

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Its Freedoms No Longer New, Russian Cinema Matures

At first glance the new Russian film “Bimmer,” about four car thieves who run afoul of gangsters in Moscow, is a routine exercise in mafia chic, post-Soviet style: leather jackets, flashy cars, copious blood.

Such films have appeared regularly on Russian movie screens in the last decade, in progressively emptier theaters. In their obsession with newly permissible content — capturing on screen the illicit world of prostitutes and gangsters that emerged from the shadows after the collapse of Communism — their directors neglected just about everything else. The cinematography was uninventive, the dialogue overheated, the conceits prosaic.

“Bimmer,” whose title refers to the glossy BMW that spirits the group out of the capital, however, is another story. Though set to a hip rock soundtrack that may appear to glamorize its misadventures, the film, which will appear as part of Russian Film Week beginning at four Manhattan theaters today, gradually reveals itself as a rueful portrait of four young men slipping irrevocably toward ruin.

“These guys are tragic characters, actually,” said Pyotr Buslov, the film’s 27-year-old director, adding, “It is a lost generation, the people who grew up in the last decade.”
The moral and technical subtlety of “Bimmer” may signal a new turn in Russian filmmaking. Perhaps it is too early to speak of a full-fledged renaissance; Russian films have yet to acquire the collective regional cachet of, say, Iranian films. But Russian cinema is turning away from mimicry of Hollywood and sensationalist treatments of previously taboo subjects.

Films coming out of Russia are increasingly meditative, subtle evocations of a nation reeling from the dislocation caused by the tumultuous passage from Communism to capitalism and democracy.

Russian film enjoyed a banner year in 2002. Four major Russian pictures — Pavel Lounguine’s “Tycoon,” Andrei Konchalovsky’s “House of Fools,” Aleksandr Rogozhkin’s “Cuckoo,” and Aleksandr Sokurov’s “Russian Ark” — have found American distributors, with at least one, “Russian Ark,” becoming a box-office success.

It is an improbable revival.

When state subsidies dried up with the demise of the Soviet Union in the early 1990’s, Russia’s film industry became the handmaiden of newly rich businessmen eager to milk a revered cultural institution for a quick profit but unskilled in filmmaking. Production plummeted, and technical training was neglected. Offerings either gratuitously exploited the bleakness of Russian life or were third-rate action films clumsily cribbed from their Western and Asian counterparts or weightless melodramas.

“All of this got old very quickly,” said Valery Kichin, the film critic for the Moscow daily Rossiyskaya Gazeta. “There was no craft, no technique. And, besides, people don’t go to the movies just to have salt rubbed in their wounds.”

Oleg Sulkin, a film critic for the New York Russian-language daily Novoye Russkoye Slovo, who chose films for this year’s festival, said: “The idea was that you had to compete with Hollywood, make genre films. But this goes directly against the Russian artistic mentality.”

“During the Soviet period the chief task of film was always to edify rather than entertain,” Mr. Sulkin said. “When Communism disappeared, this requirement fell away, too. But Russian filmmakers realized they couldn’t make a pure genre picture. Their films continue to be guided by the notion that a film must have an idea, a message, convey the national spirit somehow.”

To judge from the festival entries, that message is that modern Russia is a brutal place — in a casual, unpremeditated way. Its people always seem poised on the brink of some irreversible violence, physical or emotional.

In “Granny,” none of an old woman’s nouveau riche relatives will give her shelter after she loses her home; when she visits her sister, that woman’s son, a roaring drunk, storms the barn where the two women have barricaded themselves. In “The Slavic Woman’s March,” a young Russian soldier sinks a knife into the son of a woman who has given him a place to stay. Armies of underpaid laborers hired by rival claimants to a factory’s ownership maul each other in the streets in the drama “Magnetic Storms.”

Little of this violence, however, resembles the kind that was a mainstay of Russian films a decade ago: gang brawls, car chases and shootouts.

“The people are tired of face-bashing,” said Gennady Sidorov, the director of “Old Ladies,” a festival film about the encounter between Muslim evacuees to a provincial Russian village and the ancient ethnic Russian grandmothers who live there. “They want stories about human relationships, about how people relate to one another in this difficult time.”

The films also dramatize the profound impact that the conflict in Chechnya has had on the national psyche. At a time when few American films have dared to consider the events of 9/11, Russian filmmakers regularly dwell on Chechnya, despite the government’s censorship of the news reports about the war there.

In “The Slavic Woman’s March,” the young Russian soldier has been so debilitated by his treatment in Chechen captivity that he longs only to return to the battlefield, where he can inflict further harm on the Chechens. Even in “Granny,” ostensibly about the deterioration of morals in capitalist Russia, tolls of war dead in Chechnya pipe from every television and car radio.

These films also offer a panorama of Russia unavailable from foreign news reports, which tend to center on Moscow and St. Petersburg. Here are Orel, in the south; and Goryachiy Klyuch, in the Caucasus; and Arkhangelsk, in the north. Here are villages still waiting for Lenin’s electrification of the country, and pensions owed since Soviet times.

“Often, these films are fascinating less for their artistic accomplishments than for what they reveal about the country,” Mr. Sulkin said. “But in this regard, they are absolutely captivating.”

Mr. Sidorov, the director of “Old Ladies,” says that the hopes of Russian cinema lie with the youngest generation of filmmakers, who grew up untainted by the ideological prerogatives of Soviet film and were too young to be paralyzed by the collapse of those prerogatives.

For Mr. Buslov, the young director of “Bimmer,” a unique opportunity exists for his contemporaries.

“The young generation desperately wants to make something of itself,” he said. “Finally the money is there, the upward mobility is there, the freedom of speech is there. We have to make tough social films that reflect people’s experiences, but you can’t simplify. And you have to focus. You have to do it honestly.”

Published
October 23, 2003