Film Reviews

Russian Resurrection Film Festival 2017

Published October 27, 2017
Tonight, the ballet... Valery Todorovsky's ''The Boshoi

Why Russian Resurrection Film Festival? Is it a reference to Tolstoy’s famous novel, or to the revival of the Russian film industry in the post-Soviet era? A bit of both, I imagine, as the 14th RRFF is preocuppied with history and the literary classics.
This year’s festival features a retrospective of films by Andrei Konchalovsky (b.1937) who began his career under the Soviet regime as a friend and collaborator of Andrei Tarkovsky (1932-86), the most celebrated Russian director of modern times. Like Tarkovsky – and indeed, like Eisenstein, Dovzhenko, Pudovkin and Vertov – Konchalovsky struggled under the creative restraints placed on Soviet directors. His second movie, Asya’s Happiness (1966), would be banned for 20 years.
By the time the film could be screened Konchalovsky had left for the United States, where he began a second career in 1980, making the thriller, Runaway Train (1985); a police buddy film, Tango & Cash (1989); and TV epics such as The Odyssey (1997) and Lion in Winter (2003).
This year’s RRFF puts Runaway Train and Tango & Cash alongside two of Konchalovsky’s finest efforts from his Soviet days. Both are adapted from literary classics: Uncle Vanya (1971), after Chekhov’s play; and Nest of the Gentry (1969) from a novel by Turgenev. It adds up to a portrait of a director who has led several different lives.
When Tarkovsky was asked about his chief influences in the cinema, he famously said: “Tolstoy and Dostoevsky”. In his early films Konchalovsky took a similar path. Being effectively banned from subjects that treated life in the Soviet Union in less than glowing terms, he retreated to the golden age of Russian literature. By making historical dramas set in Tsarist times Konchalovsky could claim he was dealing exclusively with those benighted, pre-revolutionary days, while exploring human feelings and frailties common to every era.
Nest of the Gentry and Uncle Vanya are atmospheric, stylish productions, full of artful camera angles and Russian melancholy. It shows how imaginative a director can be when obstacles are placed in his path. In Konchalovsky’s own words: “You had to find a way to speak in a language that everyone except the censors understood.”
After a decade in Hollywood he began to feel there was less freedom in American cinema than in the Soviet model. He had a hit with Runaway Train, but was sacked from Tango & Cash after he argued with the studio about the ending. He once described it as “a film for people who cannot read.”
The most recent Konchalovsky film in the festival is a Russian production, Paradise (2016). A Holocaust drama shot in black-and-white, alternating between formal interviews and flashbacks, it’s virtually impossible to imagine such a movie coming out of Hollywood today.
As well as an excellent selection of classics the 2017 Festival features drama, adventure, animation, science fiction and several forms of comedy – the best, by my estimation, being Roman Volobuev’s Blockbuster (2017) a droll, black commentary on many aspects of contemporary Russian life that might have pleased a satirist such as Bulgakov.
In several instances the films take their lead from successful European and American movies, but there really is something different about the Russians. Valery Todorovsky’s The Bolshoi (2017) is a peculiarly Russian answer to Flashdance – or worse still, Pitch Perfect!. It follows the lives of an aspiring young ballerina and her colleagues in the hardest dance school of earth. The music is catchy enough, as it’s by Tchaikovsky.
Attraction is a big budget, CGI-heavy, sci-fi flick about aliens crash-landing in Moscow. It’s wildly uneven, with echoes of many other films, and even a girl-meets-alien romance. There are so many competing genres folded into the story that at one moment we could be watching a high school comedy, the next an action feature. The plot is full of holes, although that isn’t unusual for science fiction. Director, Feodor Bonarchuk, lays on the pathos with a heavy hand but doesn’t manage to spoil the entertainment.
Another film that could only have come from Russia is Anna Karenina: Vronsky’s Story (2017), in which the events of Tolstoy’s novel are retold from the perspective of Anna’s lover, Vronsky. The setting is a Manchurian village in the midst of the Russo-Japanese war of 1904. Colonel Vronsky has been treated for a leg wound by Anna’s son, Sergei, now a military doctor. We see Anna (played by Russian beauty, Elizaveta Boyarskaya) in all her pain and perversity. It’s a ingenious idea, although director Karen Shakhnazarov takes things at a stately pace.
It would be churlish to complain, however, after sitting through Joe Wright’s abominable Anna Karenina of 2013 – a film that made an excellent case for leaving the Russian classics to the Russians.
In Nest of the Gentry the callow Panshin sneers at “the mysterious nature of the Russian soul.” For him there is “no mystery about it. Just a lack of civilsation..” On the evidence of this festival it could be argued, on the contrary, that Russia today is one of the last strongholds of cinematic civilisation.
Russian Resurrection Film Festival 2017
Sydney, 26 Oct – 5 Nov; Perth 27 Oct – 1 Nov; Brisbane 1-8 Nov; Canberra 10-15 Nov;
Melbourne 9-19 Nov; Auckland, 8-12 Nov.

Published in the Australian Financial Review, 28 October, 2017