14 Essential Films For An Introduction To Post-Soviet Russian Cinema
Since the disbandment of the Soviet Union, Russian cinema has never been the same. The films in 90s and early 2000s still delivered that Soviet soul and themes we so much loved, but as the time progresses, Russian cinema took a different turn – toward Hollywood.
Despite this change in style, there are still a lot of movies made that show us that Russian style is not dead, and even the disbandment of SSSR can’t change the way Russia sees the world – in bleak colors.
1. Burnt by The Sun (Nikita Mikhalkov, 1994)
Filmed in 1994, Burnt by the Sun still has some Soviet style and atmosphere left. The film tell the story of a man, whose day started just like any other – with a pleasant morning at the dacha with his family, and ended tragically. The man is Sergei Kotov, who is the veteran of the Russian Civil War and has a huge name in the SSSR.
But things don’t go as smoothly as they start. Kotov gets into trouble with Mitya, his wife’s ex-lover that left without saying a word, and is now back. Kotov has to figure out a lot of things during the day as he realizes that his faith and beliefs, which he so strongly supported all this time, as about to be shattered.
2. The Thief (Pavel Chukhrai, 1997)
The Thief tell the story of a desperate widow and her son, Sanya, as they meet a man who calls himself Tolyan. Tolyan’s intentions are unknown, but Sanya and his mother start living with him, despite his strange habits. Sanya, who still grieves the loss of his father, often imagines him wearing an army suit and calling him.
As the story progresses and Tolyan’s real identity is revealed, Sanya suffers a big tragedy and has to go to an orphanage. The Thief is a film about longing and the illusions we create in ourselves to satisfy our needs for love and affection.
3. Brother (Aleksei Balabanov, 1997)
At the first look, Brother looks like the Soviet version of Guy Ritchie’s films. But this film is nothing like Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels. Yes, there are gangsters, Chechen mafia boss, lots of rock music, and a cameo appearance by the famous Russian band Nautilus Pompilius.
Brother tell the action-packed story of Danila, a man whose father became thief-in-law and died in jail after the destruction of SSSR. Danila’s mother sends him to Leningrad to live with his brother – Viktor and lead a better life than in Moscow. But Viktor turns out to be a very famous hitman, with a lot of problems. Danila gets involved into the murder of the Chechen mafia boss, has an affair with a married woman, starts doing drugs and tries to get his mad brother back.
4. Russian Ark (Alexander Sokurov, 2002)
Film in one day, in one take, in a huge Winter Palace in Saint Petersburg, Russian Ark doesn’t just tell us a story. It show us the history of Russia, starting with Peter The Great.
The film is told in first-person by the narrator, who died in an accident and is now a soul wondering through the Winter Palace with the unnamed European. They travel from room to room, as the cameraman follows them around. It is hard to imagine how hard it was to film this. No montage was done, just 7 months of rehearsals and a little bit of editing before releasing the film. Russian Ark is the film that preserves Russian history and culture, and shouldn’t be forgotten.
5. House of Fools (Andrei Konchalovsky, 2002)
What can be more interesting than an asylum without any staff? The patients are left all alone, with their crazy mind and ideas getting ahead of them. A great film for roller-coaster-lovers. House of fools tells the story of a lot of people, but mostly Zhanna, who believes that Bryan Adams is her fiancee and is currently on tour.
Zhanna tries to calm other patients and has no idea that something horrible is happening outside: The First Chechen War, the reason why the staff left the psychiatric hospital. There is a lot of violence, disturbing psychological stuff and a lot of drama and black comedy. This film is basically a mix of everything, which is why it is so controversial and so important to watch.
6. The Return (Andrey Zvyagintsev, 2003)
A mystical, almost mythic film about two brothers, Andrei and Ivan, whose dead father suddenly turns out to be alive. Andrei is very happy that their father is back and does everything he can to prove his loyality, but Ivan is suspicious that their father might actually be a bandit and that he doesn’t care at all about his sons.
The film takes us on a trip with the trio: through the town, the cafes, fishing, boat-riding, camping, and all the things the boys have to do while their ignorant father gives them orders. As Andrei tries harder and harder to shows his father the love, the two brothers start drifting away. This is a very sad and mysterious, presented to us with soft colors.
7. Night Watch (Timur Bekmambetov, 2004)
Despite the fact that this action-packed vampire-slaying fantasy-supernatural-thriller film with urban themes didn’t succeed amongst the critics, it surely left a huge mark on the modern Russian cinema. Bekmambetov is like the Christopher Nolan of Russian cinema.
Night Watch stars Russia’s favorite Konstantin Khabensky as the member of the Night Watch. Night Watch and Day Watch are “organisations” that were created years ago by Lord of Darkness, Zavulon, to divide the humans with specials powers, so that they wouldn’t annihilate each other. Day Watch members police the “guardians of day”, while Night Watch members police the “guardians of night”.
The film has some bad-ass editing, music and action. Even though its avant-garde style isn’t commonplace in Russian cinema and many modern directors try to follow Hollywood’s footsteps, Bekmambetov’s Night Watch is definitely not one of them. Yes, this film is packed with some American style, but Russia’s suspense is definitely dominant in this one.
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