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Knights of the Vine RUSSIA


Russian Films: Between Victory and Defeat
Vladimir Kozlov

As the international film award season begins, the issue of Russian cinema’s reception abroad again comes to the fore. The record of Nikita Mikhalkov’s “12” in the Oscar race and Anna Melikyan’s “Rusalka” Mermaid at the Berlin International Film Festival leaves a mixed impression.

In fact, in the last eight years, the mere inclusion of a Russian film as an official selection at a big film festival was considered a triumph. A notable exception was director Andrei Zvyagintsev, whose 2003 debut feature, “The Return,” was — surprisingly — selected for the main competition at the Venice Film Festival and — even more surprisingly — won the festival’s main prize, the Golden Lion. Four years later, Zvyagintsev’s follow-up, “The Banishment,” was invited to Cannes, and its star, Konstantin Lavronenko, picked up the best actor prize.

Interestingly, the international attention paid to Zvyagintsev’s films is quite in line with stereotypes about what the international audience expects of Russian: ponderous arthouse with a moral or religious message. Andrei Tarkovsky, the country’s most internationally recognized film director, made films in this mold, and Zvyagintsev is in many ways mimicking Tarkovsky’s creative methods. One problem, though, is that Tarkovsky was working thirty or forty years ago, while today’s cinema — both international and domestic — is very different.

So, it is good that “Rusalka,” despite some elements that resonate with stereotypes about the “mysterious Russian soul,” is not, objectively speaking, an arthouse film. And while it disappointed at the domestic box-office, its inclusion in the Berlin festival’s Panorama program (not the official selection, alas), where it won the international film critics’ association prize, is quite encouraging.

International interest in films like “Rusalka” and “12” may suggest two things. First, younger Russian directors are not only rediscovering Tarkovsky’s legacy but also trying to find their own path. Second, international perception of Russian film may be shifting to an awareness that Russian films occupy a wide range. Some can even be entertaining!

In this respect, the most recent Oscar race, in which “12” was nominated for best foreign-language film, is significant. Mikhalkov is neither young nor closely associated with the Russian arthouse tradition. In fact, his most internationally recognized movie, “Burnt by the Sun,” which won the best foreign-language film Oscar in 1994, was quite mainstream. The fact that “12” is a remake of the Sydney Lumet classic “Twelve Angry Men” — adapted to issues current in today’s Russia such as nationalism and xenophobia — is interesting.

Though I confess I am not a big fan of “12” or of Mikhalkov’s recent work as a director in general, I would not have been disappointed to watch Mikhalkov accept the golden statuette. Given the conservativeness of the Russian Oscar committee, which nominated “12,” it was by no means a bad choice, and any major prize awarded to a Russian film is good for the domestic film industry.

Overall, the nomination of “12” coupled with the semi-success of “Rusalka” at the Berlinale may be quite symbolic. Russian cinema is in a transitional state, reinventing itself on a commercial as well as an artistic level. So it is just fine at this point for Russian films to receive minor awards, which put them somewhere “between victory and defeat.” The important thing is that new Russian films not exploit expectations or rely on existing cliches but explore some fresh areas. — Vladimir Kozlov

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

Serial killers have always appealed to storytellers just as they have reliably fascinated and terrified audiences. So, it is hardly a surprise that the macabre legend of Sweeney Todd — the London barber-cum-murderer who has been slitting throats in penny fiction for well over a hundred years — has inspired numerous adaptations. The most recent one, a film directed by Tim Burton and starring Johnny Depp, is the highest-profile one to date.

Burton’s version of the story has already picked up a handful of awards, including an Oscar for Best Art Direction and a couple of Golden Globes (for best musical or comedy film and best actor in a musical or comedy).

The gloom, violence, and social injustice of Victorian England create the perfect backdrop for this gruesome, harrowing story. After fifteen years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit, Sweeney Todd returns to London to learn that his wife committed suicide after being raped by the evil Judge Turpin. Grief-stricken, Todd goes on a murderous rampage. With the help of his new paramour, Mrs. Lovett (Helena Bonham Carter), he opens a barber shop, to which he lures customers with a charming smile before casually ending their lives with a flick of his razor.

The movie is interesting for several reasons. First, it is the sixth Johnny Depp-Tim Burton collaboration, a partnership that produced 1994’s Ed Wood and 2005’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Second, the film is an adaptation of the Stephen Sondheim- Hugh Wheeler stage play, which made unlikely generic bedfellows of the criminal thriller and Broadway musical. On the stage, the unusual combination produced a fascinating result, and the same holds true for this screen version. The movie preserves some musical numbers from the original Broadway production.

Even for those who are not fans of musicals or serial killers, this Sweeney Todd may yet hold some appeal. Note, however, that some toe-tapping tunes notwithstanding, the dark subject matter may make it unsuitable for the kids. — Vladimir Kozlov.

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