Russian Film Week NYC, which took place from October 28th through November 4th in the (historically Ukrainian) East Village, opened, appropriately enough, with Slava Ross’s “Siberia, Monamour,” a feature of Chekhovian proportions. Ross’s bleak drama is grounded in the characters of a grandfather and his young grandson, unfortunate denizens of the Siberian village of Monamour, a no-man’s land where feral dogs run wild like a pack of Cujos, ruling the forest that surrounds and entraps the pair. As the two vainly await the return of the child’s father, other lost males – from a morally bankrupt soldier, to a cuckolded father, to a conniving thief – drift in and out of their lives, in turn finding their own subplots.
Yet it soon becomes apparent that Ross is more firmly focused on his contemplative study of atmosphere, as these characters are all merely pawns and victims – mentally and physically, and metaphorically and literally – of the harsh unforgiving landscape they are destined never to escape. Indeed, “Siberia, Monamour” has less in common tonally with the Alain Resnais classic its title nods to, than it does with more recent Scandinavian horror flicks such as Michael Steiner’s brutally existential “Sennentuntschi: Curse of The Alps.
Closer in spirit to the French New Wave was Oleg Flyangolts’s “Indifference,” a passionate homage set to an evocative jazz soundtrack, best described as “Breathless” meets “La Dolce Vita” in Moscow. The film was shot in 1989, but revisited by the director with new technology two decades later. The result is an exquisitely crafted – right down to the costumes, set design, crisp B&W cinematography and hand-drawn animation – mash note to cinema and city. “A person does not have to have a reason to do something. He needs an excuse,” the male protagonist tells the sexy brunette he’s been pursuing through the Moscow streets. (Except maybe when it comes to sitting in the dark before a magical silver screen. “Indifference” proves all you need is love.)
And suspension of disbelief. Luckily, Brooklyn director Dmitry Povolotsky’s “My Father is Baryshnikov” provided both. Feel-good fare at its finest Povolotsky’s debut feature is a sweet (not sappy) coming-of-age-during-Perestroika tale that alternately could have been titled “Bolshoi Billy Elliot.” The sharp period piece set in 1986 stars an intoxicating Dmitri Viskubenko as Boris Fishkin, a scrawny and fatherless 14-year-old who not only dreams of dancing with the beauty of his ballet school, but believes he’s the son of the defector and dance world star. From costumes to set design Povolotsky painstakingly reproduces the Gorbachev era; while capturing hands, feet and sweat on the back of a neck is every bit as important to him as nabbing master shots. “The moment I saw Baryshnikov dance I knew that this was freedom,” an adult Fishkin narrates in voiceover as the awkward adolescent (who actually resembles Polanski more than he does his idol) begins to use his beloved Baryshnikov videotape to tutor himself to the top of his class. As Fishkin pirouettes to the Boney M. soundtrack, leaps through the Moscow streets selling black market goods, the film becomes a tribute to the power of belief – even if false. By sheer force of will Fishkin transforms into a self-assured teenager, convincing both himself and those around him that he’s destined for greatness. And ultimately becomes a man when he stops dreaming and faces the harsh paternal truth. Fortunately for Fishkin the truth has a funny way of also setting us free.
All in all, this year’s edition didn’t pack the operatic punch of past Russian Film Weeks. (Back in 2009 Sergei Solovyov’s sweeping epic treatment of “Anna Karenina,” and the queen of Ukrainian cinema Kira Muratova’s near-miraculous “Melody for a Street Organ,” especially rocked my world.) Then again it didn’t have to. After a decade this Eastern-European cinephile event has finally come into its own, trading in grand spectacle for subtle gestures. Goodbye Lenin! indeed.