Unique and stunning visuals marked Russian cinema since the earliest days. From the phantasmagories of Starevich and Protazanov, to the giddy montage days of Eisentein, Vertov, and Dovzhenko, to visual poetry of Paradjanov and Tarkovsky.
Sadly, visionary visual artists in Soviet days had to deal with being told what and how to do by the ever-reaching Communist Party officials and their blind obedience to “Social Realism” as they understood it.
Truly visual art wasn’t easy to make-imagine going through the tortuous creative process of coming up with a unique and artistic idea and the pains of bringing it to screen-only to have it cut by the censors, or else have the whole film banned.
The end of Soviet Union meant the end of party dictatorship-but now, the artists had to deal with a whole different beast-marketing and consumerism. If before the striking work would be frowned upon, now it may simply not get made due to lack of financial support. Fortunately, the creative spirit lives on.
Some of the films in this list were made by the Soviet-era directors, and, refreshingly, others-by the next generation of artists committed to the art of cinema.
1. Moscow Parade (1992) Dir. by Ivan Dykhovichny
One of the first notable films of the new Russia, this gem managed to get misunderstood by both sides. A searing examination of the nightmarish life under Stalinist terror, it displeased “the patriots” with its portrayal of life in the late 30’s as a Kafkaesque nightmare, while the liberals and Western audiences have accused the director of “lacquering” and “beautifying” the ugly reality. But that was his point-to show how terrible and murderous the life in the totalitarian state can be, notwithstanding all the Imperial glamour.
The film focuses on a group of hedonistic NKVD (KGB) officers, the new elite. The wife of one of them is portrayed by Ute Lemper, a well-known German singer of cabaret tunes. Here she plays a former noblewoman married to one of these new kings of life, partaking in their decadent lifestyle. She tries to find a way out via a romance with a simple mover, but the System has eyes and a long reach.
On the sidelines, we are presented with various inhabitants of that universe-a poet being persecuted, a defense attorney who has a passionate affair with an axe murderer, an absurdly circus-like preparations for a big parade. Nothing is normal in this absurd world. The live-action sequences are frequently intercut with footage of parades and marches, which at first seem staged just for the film-but, it turns out, Dykhovichny has discovered actual color documentary reels from the era, and used them to great effect.
The hard-to-translate title Russian title, “Prorva”, means both “large amount” and “chasm” in Russian, and the director fully succeeded in bringing to screen a searing indictment of the tragic past and the multiple ways a flawed system can make life a bottomless abyss.
Other works: a short but very diverse filmography. Of note are The Black Monk (1988), Kopeck (2002), and Europe-Asia (2009), all very different from one another.
2. Drumroll (1993) Dir. by Sergei Ovcharov
Early 80’s marked the arrival of Sergei Ovcharov’s idiosyncratic talent onto the Soviet film scene. His works deserve to be better known in the West, but seldom are, due mainly to their unique folk aesthetics. Ovcharov’s favorite way of making films is to take a fairy tale or an old folk legend and then to rework it in a colorful and loud way (similar to Emir Kusturica). His first work in the new Russia is also his first and so far only original screenplay. No subtitles are needed, as it is completely dialogue-free!
This is a story of a funeral band drummer who is “gifted” a large and priceless “Stradivarius” drum, which, apparently, has a mind of its own. The drum leads his “master” across the vast and lawless post-Soviet space, causing him to gain and lose fortunes and to meet an assortment of strange individuals. He finally finds the strength to break free from the drum’s domination.
The film ends with a short mockumentary which shows how the cavemen made their first drums (spoiler: from dinosaur skins). Half of the time, you’ll laugh, and the other half-won’t believe what you’re seeing. Silent cinema wasn’t this funny since the Chaplin/Keaton days.
Other works: see all 6 features. Ovcharov’s filmography is short on quantity, but high on quality. And they all brim with humor and carnivalesque energy.
3. Mother and Son (1997) Dir. by Aleksandr Sokurov
Andrey Tarkovsky’s student and heir apparent (by Tarkovsky’s own admission) in the field of achingly artistic cinema, Sokurov entered his stride in the late 90’s with this art-house hit.
One of the most visually striking and meditative films ever made, it follows a few hours in the lives of the dying mother and her grown son at a country house. He takes her out on one last walk. If Claude Monet was a filmmaker, he would have made films like this, where every frame is deeply impressionistic. Images distorted by lenses, mirrors, and painted glass planes. Highlighted yet muted sounds of seagulls, waves, and the wind. Dialogue that is more whispers, almost to the point of being telepathic.
As in Tarkovsky’s works, virtually every frame begs to be paused, cut out, and hung on the wall. And the story is there-a sort of a reverse pieta, with the son holding his dying mother for the last time. Best viewed with lights turned off and sound-up.
Other works: from the period leading up to this film, The Lonely Voice of Man (1978-1987), Mournful Unconcern (1983-1987), Days of Eclipse (1988), The Second Circle (1990), The Stone (1992). Of note also are the documentaries: Maria (1978-1988), Evening Sacrifice (1984-1987), the Tarkovsky tribute Moscow Elegy (1986-1988), Spiritual Voices (1995), and especially the divine and striking Oriental Elegy (1996).
4. Of Freaks and Men (1998) Dir. by Alexei Balabanov
A tastefully kinky art film. It shows the early age of cinema in the 1900’s Russian Empire, focusing on its very first pornographer. Much like Boogie Nights, it examines the “genre” by concentrating on the characters. An inspired pornographer Johann and his evil assistant make their “art” at the expense of ruining two families. The style is striking-it’s filmed in BW and sepia hues of the time. Very morbidly funny too, particularly the title cards that explain what just happened.
Though not silent, the dialogue is crisp and clipped, so it doesn’t at all distracts from the cool and striking imagery. The question it poses is-who are the freaks of the title? Because the “victims” here contribute to their own downfall, either by complacency or moral weakness. But this question is posed without forced moralization and in the droll and artistic way.
Other works: Balabanov is another director with a varied and diverse filmography. Kafka adaptation The Castle (1994), philosophical crime thriller Brother (1997), wacky blackest of comedies Dead Man’s Bluff (2005) – all worth it.
5. Day of the Full Moon (1998) Dir. by Karen Shakhnazarov
What do “new Russians”, old Uzbeks, successful hitmen, popular DJs, beautiful princesses, mysterious monks, foreign diplomats, and legendary poets have in common? Other than the fact that the moon shines for all of them, they are all the parts of the intricate narrative in this kaleidoscopic film.
Well before Amores Perros and Babel, Shakhnazarov came up with this seemingly disjointed parable on life and death, art and people, and the deceptively accidental connections we share in this world. The camera seems to have a mind of its own here, as it fluidly changes directions and follows different characters.
Almost experimental in structure, this film proves that the devil is, indeed, in details. Many scenes almost stand out in their own right, particularly the striking and lyrical one that focuses on a dog (and lets us know what that dog thinks). A beautiful and opaque film that rewards multiple viewings.
Other works: Shakhnazarov is another filmmaker with a greatly diverse filmography. It includes the musical comedy We are From Jazz (1984), an absurdist Stalinist one Winter Evening in Gagry (1985), a coming-of-age satire The Messenger Boy (1987), a Groundhog-day-like Zerograd (1990), a psychological thriller The Assassin of the Tsar (1991), philosophical period thriller The Rider Named Death (2004), and Chekhovian adaptation Ward Number 6 (2009).
6. Luna Papa (1999) Dir. by Bakhtyar Khudojnazarov
An utterly charming and zany tragicomedy. The aftertaste will remind one of Fellini’s Amarcord or one of Kusturica’s works. Taking place in an unidentified Central Asian post-Soviet republic, one of many –“stans”, it focuses on a spunky and wistful young heroine, who lives with her stern yet infinitely kind father and shell-shocked brother. For her, theatre is the escape from the prose of life.
One evening, she meets a stranger when lost in a ravine. Upon learning that he is an actor, her world is transformed into a moonlit paradise. The encounter leaves her a bit pregnant, and, as in those regions a pregnant girl simply MUST have a husband, her father and brother accompany her on the search of the region’s theatres (she only remembers his voice). Their travels take them along the dusty roads and introduce a slew of eccentric characters (a plane-using cattle rustler being the most memorable).
Words really don’t do this gem justice, it must be experienced. Powerful performances by Chulpan Khamatova (best known to Western audiences for her turns in Goodbye Lenin) and veteran actor Ato Mukhamedzhanov as the father, sparkling script from notable Georgina writer/director Irakli Kvirikadze, and pitch-perfect direction make it unforgettable.
Other works: recently deceased (04/21/15), the Tajik-born Khudojnazarov made several worthy films. Of note are Kosh ba Kosh (1993) and Chic (2003), similarly marked by deft lyricism.
7. His Wife’s Diary (2000) Dir. by Alexey Uchitel
What makes this film stunning is the fact that it doesn’t try to stun and impress, but does so nonetheless. It achieves the desired effect by a combination of a strong script, inspired performances, and a measured and controlled visual style.
The story focuses on the life of Ivan Bunin, the great Russian émigré writer residing in France, his professional triumph (a Nobel Prize), and the utter mess of his personal life. He resides with his wife of title who worships and adores him, a young poetess whom he loves, and a strange young man who helps run the household and who is hopelessly in love with his wife.
So, not merely a love triangle, but a love square. The mistress leaves the great writer for her lesbian lover, but when the Nazi occupation happens, they both seek shelter at his place, further complicating matters.
Andrey Smirnov, himself a well-known writer and director, does an outstanding job portraying a man who is enormously talented in his art, but weak and sometimes pathetic in private life. Same can be said of the housekeeper-he is a nobody, a hanger-on in the shadow of greatness, and yet is capable of great feelings. T
he performance of Vera, the suffering wife, is another gem, as is the lesbian lover of the mistress-both are ambiguous and whole characters, whose motivations are well explained. The director cast his film with mostly talented St. Petersburg stage actors, and the claustrophobic setting of a troubled household is perfect for the theatricality of this real-life drama.
Other works: Uchitel first gained fame on the St. Petersburg perestroika scene with his documentaries (1990’s Obvodny Channel is a must). This was his second live-action film, and since then he made several more quality works-The Stroll (2003), Dreaming of Space (2005), The Edge (2010). Deserves to be better known.
8. Moscow (2000) Dir. by Aleksandr Zeldovich
Welcome to the merciless city of high society, easy money, blood debts, night clubs, alcohol, drugs, and kinky sex. A post-modern Moscow at its best (or worst). Really, the plot of this film can seem convoluted at times, its message-unclear, and dialogues-stilted.
Loose allusions to Chekhov’s “Three Sisters”, unconvincing romantic threads, characters suffering from unexplained fatalism and ennui, and blurred messages (“City with no future”, “City that devours its children”). But this tale of a nightclub owner, her two daughters, and their three interchangeable lovers has at least two things going for it.
First is its stunning cinematography. Original and unique compositions, amazingly beautiful series of pictures, kaleidoscope of colors and hues, camera movements that are both natural and otherworldly-the cinematographer, Aleksandr Ilkhovsky, nearly saves the film all by himself. Another powerful element is music. The traditional Russian songs and oldies are rearranged in the spectacularly jazzed-up manner. For these two elements alone, picture and sounds, this film deserves to be watched.