A Gentle Creature (2018)

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Directed by Sergey Loznitsa
Country: Russia / Lithuania / other

Ukrainian director Sergey Loznitsa is known for dejected dramas marked by a strong emotional aptitude and sharp sociopolitical commentary. In addition to valid fictional works such as “My Joy” and “In The Fog”, he dedicates great part of his career to documentaries, a category that includes “The Event” and “Maidan” as highlights.

His most recent work, “A Gentle Creature”, was aptly shot in Latvia and Lithuania and its story based on Fyodor Dostoievsky’s short story of the same name. It stars Vasilina Makovtseva, the perfect figure to personify this lonely Russian woman whose incarcerated husband suddenly is impeded to receive her monthly package containing clothes, canned food, condensed milk, and other essential goods. The package had never been refused by the prison or returned by the post office before, which rises suspicion about his whereabouts and health condition. He can even be dead, and this gentle if restless creature can’t live with that painful uncertainty. Hence, courageous and unhesitating, she sets off to the prison where he was sent to after being sentenced for an apparently shady murder case.

An uncomfortable and exhausting trip to a remote region of the country impregnated with oppressive atmospheres and gloomy characters who seem to enjoy telling her morbid stories. To get to see her husband, she is subjected to several humiliations - police corruption and abuse of power are systematic, and is drawn to unfriendly places where depression, debauchery, paranoia, and mistrust become nerve-wracking. Not to mention the endless bureaucracy and constant intimidation associated to the futile, totalitarian Russian authorities. This woman knows she cannot trust nobody, but she has no other option than accept the help of strangers. After all, she needs her piece of mind, which can only achieve when she finds out where her husband is. Once at the prison, she is told to contact the ‘proper authorities’, a vague statement that gets her as much confused as frustrated.

Loznitsa essayed a long, dense, and evil governmental machination, which culminates in unexpected places replete with familiar faces. The disturbing ending has the crepuscular cinematography by Oleg Mutu reinforcing the darkness of a tale whose occasional sarcastic humor won’t be enough to cheer you up. “A Gentle Creature” is an arduous watch indeed and will leave you a certain nausea that takes a while to go away. However, its mysterious ways, bolstered with a bit of psychedelic surrealism, makes it notable.

The Lightest Darkness (2018)

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Directed by Diana Galimzyanova
Country: Russia

Spurred by film-noir momentum and Kafkian conundrum, “The Lightest Darkness” is a visually strong neo-noir thriller that promises much but gives little. If the black-and-white cinematography by Svetlana Makarova and Alexey Petrushkevich deserves accolade, then the script, penned by debutant Russian director Diana Galimzyanova, is parched in emotion. She evokes the mood and tones of Hitchcock’s “Strangers On a Train” and Kawalerowicz’s “Night Train”, but the effort ends up deprived of real tension.

In the fictional City of N., two women take a dangerous train trip, knowing that the Fruiterer, an undisclosed serial killer who only kills at night, is on board. The fearless women are Arina (Irina Gevorgyan), an obstinate screenwriter who is currently seeking crime-related inspiration for a new video game, and Elina (Marina Voytuk), a self-reliant pianist who witnessed the last killing. Sharing the car with these two powerful female presences is Musin (Rashid Aitouganov), an insomniac, neurotic, and heavily traumatized private detective whose fluctuant behavior leads us to believe he may be the killer. Moreover, he is riding on the same train for six months.  

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The story, told backwards with the help of hazy flashbacks, pushes us to a puzzling mystery that gets lost in an idle conversational mode. As an alternative to suspense, Ms. Galimzyanova dabbles in human psychology and mysticism when she introduces Izolda (Kolya Neukoelln), a sinister Holistic experimenter who is strictly connected with voodoo and spiritism. She is the therapist of the attention-seeking Lyubov (Kseniya Zemmel), the missing woman whom Musin was hired to find. However, instead of focusing on his goal, he gets emotionally involved with the manipulative therapist.

Lacking a proper climax and shattered by plot holes, the film takes us to narrow train hallways and inconsequent therapy sessions, both of which are far from being exciting. Moreover, none of the characters earned my sympathy or piqued any sort of curiosity, not even in regard to their enigmatic yet muddled pasts. Thus, watching “The Lightness Darkness” was a limited experience that failed to give something more than just visual pleasure.

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Arrhythmia (2017)

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Directed by Boris Khlebnikov
Country: Russia

Sad realities are usually desirable topics for observant films whose intention is to alert the world for specific circumstances. “Arrhythmia”, the sixth feature-length by Moscow-born filmmaker Boris Khlebnikov (“Roads to Koktebel”; “A Long and Happy Life"), follows exactly that premise, portraying the profile of a married couple in a relationship lacerated by alcohol addiction.

Oleg (Aleksandr Yatsenko) and Katya (Irina Gorbacheva) started dating in med-school and have been married for a few years. He is a paramedic who goes all over the city in an ambulance, jumping from house to house to provide emergency medical treatment for those in a critical condition. However, he has a serious drinking problem that sometimes prevents him to perform the tasks at his full capacity.

Much more ambitious and reliable than he is, Katya is a dedicated junior doctor who becomes more and more upset with Oleg’s irresponsibility. The situation was already bad, but her patience reached the limit during her father’s anniversary lunch, where she got visibly disturbed and embarrassed with Oleg’s impertinence. She still loves him, though, and yet, the situation seems out of control, getting her tired and frustrated. So much that she still doesn’t know how to address the problem, communicating her decision to divorce him by text message. Oleg doesn’t take her seriously at first but starts sleeping in the kitchen until he could find a new apartment, which he never does.

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Meanwhile, the things at work are not famous either, with Oleg being subjected to various complaints. Sometimes he overdiagnoses, other times he doesn't follow the rules he is obliged to, and some other times he doesn’t respect the patient’s decisions or beliefs. This situation only gets worse with the arrival of the insensitive new head of the Emergency Medical Agency substation, who imposes twenty rules to be followed tightly, disregarding the human factor that this type of job should consider. 

The romance, holding down a down-to-earth emotional weight, feels very authentic, for which much contributes the tight performances of Yatsenko - best actor at Karlovy Vary - and Gorbacheva. This is also bolstered by the confident direction of Mr. Khlebnikov, who keeps the film controlled while consciously takes it to a nonjudgmental path. The objective camera doesn't seek props or embellishments but rather captures a distasteful social reality without extravagant stratagems. It gives us the raw environment within the household, at the working premises, and in streets bursting at the seams with traffic congestion.

Feeling as emotionally strong as conceptually simple, “Arrhythmia” was handsomely crafted with powerful, thrilling scenes, showcasing not only a Russian medical predicament but perhaps even a worldly one. There’s optimism as a response to the imperfect world it describes, and genuine love seems to be the global solution.

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Paradise (2017)

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Directed by Andrei Konchalovsky
Country: Russia / Germany

Russian veteran Andrei Konchalovsky’s new drama, “Paradise”, centers on three persons whose destinies cross during the World War II. Co-penned by Konchalovsky and Elena Kiseleva, the script follows a mixed structure of fictional account and documentary-style interviewing, with the camera fixed during the first minutes on the self-reliant Jules Michaud (Philippe Duquesne), who, after introducing himself, starts to talk about his wife and his guileless son Emile. Even if he doesn’t seem an evil person, Michaud works in the French Police Department as an informer for Nazi Germany, being responsible for the capture of 80 thousand Jews.
 
Now he has a new case in hands regarding Russian-immigrant Olga (Yuliya Vysotskaya), a member of the French Resistance and fashion editor for Vogue Magazine in Paris. She was arrested for hiding two Jewish children in a friend’s apartment. At Jule’s office, where evidence of physical torment is undeniable, she asks “will you torture me?”. The tone implicit in the counter-question - “do I have a choice?” - made her realize she might have a slight chance if she could use her body. And she wasn’t mistaken because Jules was completely fascinated with her strength and manipulative charm. Unfortunately, the plan is impeded when Jules succumbs to a successful Resistance operation. 

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To this point, the French glamour hadn't worked so well, but the film was going through an intriguing phase. After enticing us to know more about this woman, the attentions veer to a noble German aristocrat and high-ranked SS officer, Helmut zu Axenburg (Christian Clauß), who really prefers a good Chekov reading than chasing people around. Occasionally, he helps some Jews of his neighborhood, preventing them from being taken to concentration camps. Yet, just like his superior and friend, Heinrich Himmler (Viktor Sukhorukov), he believes in the creation of a German paradise, in which he has a brilliant future. That’s why the cruel, fundamentalist officer Krause (Peter Kurth) is so envious of his success. This man is in charge of the German concentration camp where Olga was sent. Unsurprisingly, we learn that Olga and Helmut are not strangers, with the film winding back a few years to a sunny summer day in Tuscany, Italy, when she fell into his arms.

Unable to ignite an emotional fire, the story fades gradually as the limitations of its uneven parts force me to abandon the characters. This ungoverned ship got lost in explanative rumination and trivial details that could have spared the film from that annoying overlong feel. Hence, the impeccably contrasted black and whites set by cinematographer Aleksandr Simonov nothing could do to save it from the wreck. As a matter of fact, the visual aspect becomes what impels us to look at the screen since the periodic interruptions in the narrative flow in order to include the characters’ monologues become a bit tiresome.

Konchalovsky was awarded the Venice Silver Lion but was incapable to give a proper sequence to a few good ideas, allowing both the tedium and the disorganization to circumscribe a plot that brusquely decays half-way.

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Loveless (2017)

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Directed by: Andrey Zvyagintsev
Country: Russia

Russian director Andrey Zvyagintsev has become one of the most sought-after storytellers of our time, and his acclaimed works are usually significant and pungent. Following the masterpieces “The Return”, “Elena”, and “Leviathan”, the prodigious filmmaker turns his stinging criticism to Putin’s unruly Russia and a virulent household, in a cold-hearted missing-child drama. Thus, the title “Loveless” fits hand-in-glove with the material addressed.

This aching absence of love can be sensed at many levels and goes through many layers. The camera captures the ways of a middle-class couple, Boris (Aleksey Rozin) and Zhenya (Maryana Spivak), who is about to divorce. They have a 12-year-old son, Alexey (Matvey Novikov), who is often left on his own, neglected, and without any supervision. Hurt with the embarrassing atmosphere lived at home and on the verge of being sent to a boarding school, the unhappy Alexey is clearly a nuisance for his parents, who are both having affairs with new partners. Boris is inclusively expecting another child from his insecure and often inconvenient girlfriend, Masha (Marina Vasileva).
 
One day, Alexey didn't return home from school. Despite missing for nearly two days, his father remains too busy working, while the mother keeps enjoying time in the company of a new bourgeois, Anton (Andris Keiss). A police investigation is launched, not without the expected bureaucracy, and the doubts fall into three different possibilities: murder, kidnap, or just a runaway teenager? 

Religion appears as another sharp observation about modern Russia. Boris could only be able to work for an ultra-orthodox company because he was married, but now with the divorce, his position is at stake. Nothing he couldn't fake, says a workmate. With Zhenya, who was always unloved by her irascible mother, the things were completely different. She got married out of love to escape the hell she was living at home.

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The movie immerses you in its web of ambiguity, and yet, all the mystery created around the story is almost totally suffocated by the negligence, cruelty, and selfishness of the adult characters. There’s so much pain, regret, and bitterness in this tale that one can’t help being dragged into a miserable emotional state.

Wintry and autumnal woody landscape, fantastically captured by the lens of cinematographer Mikhail Krichman, infuse an extra sense of abandonment in a story that, little by little, starts to mess with your head and emotions. Zvyagintsev is a true master of these techniques, and he does it with a clear vision, sharp intention, and cultivated proficiency.

Deservedly nominated for the best foreign picture by the Academy, “Loveless” left me completely parched and infuriated in the end. Darkness will live forever in the chest of this mother and father, who choose to live their lives as if they were victims instead of responsible parents. It’s frustratingly unbearable, for the film’s sake.
 
The filming process occurred in Moscow and was completed with international financial support after “Leviathan” has been disapproved in 2014 by the Russian authorities. Nothing new regarding censorship; just like it's not a novelty the ability of Zvyagintsev making outstanding films.

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THe Student (2016)

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Directed by Kirill Serebrennikov
Country: Russia

"The Student" is a dark drama focused on the extremism of ideas and behaviors. Written and directed by Kirill Serebrennikov, who sought inspiration in a play by the German Marius von Mayenburg, the film comes equipped with comedic undertones and inflamed religious discourses.

The script focuses on Venya (Pyotr Skvortsov), a tumultuous high school student turned religious fanatic whose preachy attitude and behaviors fall out of the normal standards, especially considering his young age.
Venya might want to preach the good but ends up sinning badly. At first, one may wonder if this is not a way he found to do what he wants: skipping school’s swimming classes, loitering without studying, disregarding rules and duties, and calling the all the attention to himself. However, as the story advances, we notice that this boy has no solid background, as well as no father as an authoritarian voice. Actually, he only has this pathetic mother, Inga (Yuliya Aug), who seems in need of as much help and orientation as he does. Venya has this ability to muddle her vision about his real intentions and compel her to stand up for him regardless the unremitting misconduct.

At school, Venya tries to disguise his physical attraction to the conceited Tkacheva (Aleksandra Revenko). He also offers God’s salvation to Grisha (Aleksandr Gorchilin), a bullied crippled boy who falls in love with him, a sacrilege that will have terrible repercussions. 
The only one who dares confront him in his ideas is Elena (Viktoriya Isakova), a liberal and atheist pedagogue who gradually becomes a religious junkie as she attempts to understand the boy’s conduct and motivations. She dives so obsessively into the Bible’s writings that her boyfriend Oleg (Anton Vasilev) decides to leave her until she returns to her normal state. 
This opposite view is also a form of extremism and Serebrennikov awkwardly manages to make it work by setting an open battle between two obstinate persons: a fervent Christian and a rational scientist. 

All the characters, including the unhelpful school’s principal (Svetlana Bragarnik) and a pointless priest (Nikolay Roshchin), got on my nerves, so childish they behave. Here, we have kids playing adults and adults behaving like kids, all wrapped in a philosophical circus that feels half realistic, half staged. 
Beautifully shot by the cinematographer Vladislav Opelyants, who knows how to use light in his favor, "The Student" is a purposely exaggerated satire that feels simultaneously mindful and nerve-wracking. Among extensive angry sermons, inflamed egos, and emotional vulnerabilities, the film looks at contemporary Russia with biting sarcasm.

Hardcore Henry (2015)

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Directed by Ilya Naishuller
Country: Russia / USA

“Hardcore Henry”, the super-violent directorial debut feature from Ilya Naishuller, is a pointless silliness that received wide acclaim in Russia, its origin country. 

Mr. Naishuller moves in every direction – sci-fi, action, thriller, horror, and even war – trying to convince us of his capabilities through the creation of anarchic scenarios and the manifestation of pseudo offbeat attitudes. Sadly, the best he could do was turning this dystopian nonsense into a terrifying bad movie.

The story is totally told from the perspective of Henry, whose eyes we never see because they are represented by the annoying handheld camera that frantically moves and zooms around.
When Henry wakes up in a space lab’s water tank he can’t speak or remember how he got in there. Estelle (Haley Bennett), the scientist who’s replacing his limbs and reconstructed his body after a harrowing accident, says she’s his wife. All of a sudden, the lab is attacked by a telekinetic villain, Akan (Danila Kozlovsky), but the couple manages to flee, landing in Russia where more mercenaries are waiting for them.
Jimmy (Sharlto Copley) is an enigmatic British ally that rescues Henry while Estelle can’t help being kidnapped by Akan’s persistent troops. 
As a man of many lives, Jimmy is permanently in contact with death. Thus, he wants to make sure he gives the right orientation to Henry, who must find a man called Slick Dimitry and take his heart since it contains the fundamental charging pump that could keep him alive. 
He sets off on an excruciating journey with a triple objective: to prolong his life, rescue his wife, and exterminate the enemies.

The film shows an uncontrollable eagerness in shocking us through savage acts perpetrated by the despicable characters. It uses and abuses of chaotic situations that are often accompanied by a hardcore musical score (just to match its title).
Parched in terms of message and tastelessly directed, the barbaric “Hardcore Henry” feels gratuitous in its brawls, disorganized in its structure, muddled in its storytelling, and compromising as an entertainment.

Hard to Be a God (2015)

Hard to Be a God (2013) - Movie Review
Directed by: Aleksei German
Country: Russia

Movie Review: Dated from 2013 but actually being exhibited in NYC theaters in 2015, “Hard to Be a God” is the swan song from Russian filmmaker, Aleksei German, who died in 2013. The film is a freakish three-hour odyssey, with dark venues on the background, based on the 1964 novel of the same name by the brothers Arkady and Boris Strugatsky. Adapted by Mr. German and Svetlana Karmalita, the script is outlandishly drawn by an endless succession of abominable experiences and killings, presented in black and white, and set in a medieval, outer planet called Arkanar. The foggy, swampy, and muddy landscapes, together with the fierce hunt for thinkers and wise men, throw us into a chaos taken from the most hellish descriptions by Dante. Imagine a nefarious version of “Lord of the Rings”, with no magic or color, and injected by indecency, violence, eccentricity, and eeriness. The film starts by introducing the feared noble scientist, Don Rumata (Leonid Yarmolnik), who is sent from Earth, in an attempt to save the persecuted wise ones. But for that, he will need the help of a doctor, Budhak, who had disappeared mysteriously. Seen as a God, and with more than 300 ears cut from the evildoers, Rumata will become fatigued from the murkiness that reigns in the planet where nobody seems to have a heart. Sometimes the film moves in a confusing way, bursting with so many odd characters and huddled scenarios – the ones that you can almost smell the pestilent air. The film wouldn’t lose meaning if trimmed for at least half-hour, but what might be exhaustive for some viewers, becomes a delight for others, especially for the enthusiasts of bizarre art house with a hint of classic. Here, one can find some terms of comparison with the last Ben Wheatley’s “A Field in England” and the Czech classic “Marketa Lazarova”. Monstrous and hilarious by turns, “Hard to Be a God” is a grotesque epic that despite nauseous, grabs you by the balls.

The Fool (2014)

The Fool (2014) - Movie Review
Directed by: Yuriy Bykov
Country: Russia

Movie Review: The multiple awarded “The Fool”, from emergent director Yuriy Bykov, is a pulsing drama that takes a bitter look in contemporary Russia and its socio-political problems. The hero here, in the true sense of the word, is Dima Nikitin (Artyom Bistrov), a modest, yet smart plumber who doesn’t hide his will to go further in his career. He’s studying hard to be a civil engineer, even knowing it’s going to be strictly necessary to bribe someone in the governmental department to take a position of that kind. Family life - with his wife and little son - is far from being perfect, since they still live with his parents, confined to an old house that doesn’t reunite the best conditions. His untouchable honesty, a virtue he gained from his hopeless father, will have a price after a call to inspect a burst pipe in District A, the most problematic neighborhood in town. A crack that goes from the first to the ninth floor of the decrepit building clearly indicates that it might fall in the next hours. Promptly, Dima reports the fact to the mayor, Nina Galaganova (Natalya Surkova was brilliant), who was in a degrading party, celebrating her birthday with her corrupt staff. With 820 people in danger, she shows concern about the problem and determination in solving it, but will the ‘system’ allow her to do the right thing? “The Fool” counts with exceptional performances, exhibiting enough intrigue, and uncovering the moral filth hidden under the carpet of bureaucracy and unreasonable solutions. It’s also packed with miserable scenarios of poverty, violence and drugs, and all the painful realities that are neglected in order to feed the wealth of the highest Russian patents. Yes, lamentably in some shabby countries, honesty and integrity are mistaken for foolishness.

III (2015)

III (2015) - Movie Review
Directed by: Pavel Khvaleev
Country: Russia / Germany

Movie Review: Pavel Khvaleev's sophomore feature film, “III”, can be as much contemplative and idyllic as sinister and eerie. Ayia (Polina Davydova) and Mirra (Lyubov Ignatushko) get completely devastated when their mother falls sick and dies from a mysterious disease that is making more and more victims over the city. While the older sister, Ayia, finds strength in her religious faith to deal with the grief, Mirra shows to be a non-believer, rejecting God, as she feels responsible for her mother’s death. She eventually catches the fatal disease, falling in a sort of delirious state where dark dreams mirror a hidden past of traumas and suffering. Soon an order to abandon the house arrives to the desperate Ayia, who can only count with the help of the town’s priest and family friend, Father Herman (Evgeniy Gagarin). The latter revealed to be wobbly in his faith but swore to take care of the sisters. Resorting to mystical practices and an esoteric book written by a shaman, the priest will try to connect the sisters’ minds, since according to him, the only way to save Mirra is to find and kill the deepest fear that resides in her subconscious. A burdensome journey to her sister’s worst nightmares doesn’t shake Ayia’s determination. Will this be sufficient to save Mirra? The powerful score, together with the intense images extracted from Igor Kiselev’s beautiful cinematography are the most positive aspects in “III”, a horror tale that couldn’t avoid gaps in the plot and a confusing narrative. It creates some good moments, though. The abrupt conclusions might divide the fans of the genre, but even flawed, a few thrills and surprises are guaranteed.

Leviathan (2014)

Leviathan (2014) - Movie Review
Directed by: Andrey Zvyagintsev
Country: Russia

Movie Review: Russian cult director, Andrei Zvyagintsev, doesn’t stop to astonish me with precise contemporary tales set in his country of origin. “Leviathan”, presents the same quality as his three previous masterpieces - “The Return”, “The Banishment” and “Elena” – this time introducing some mythological tones, inspired on the Book of Job, and moving in the same measured way, to rub hard in our faces the hypocrisy, injustice and corruption of a rusty, yet dangerous Russian system composed by unscrupulous politicians, dishonest cops and selfish representatives of the church. In order to cope with these shameful realities, the common people drown themselves in vodka, whether to forget the miseries of life, or to celebrate a relaxed time together. The script, co-written by Zvyagintsev and his habitual partner, Oleg Negin, is centered in Kolya, an ordinary man who is ordered to leave his house, located in a remote peninsula, since the dishonored mayor has other plans for that piece of land. His last hope is the arrival of Dmitri, an old friend from the times when he served in the army, now turned into a respected lawyer with good connections in Moscow. When the case was evolving favorably, Kolya finds out that his wife, Lylia, is having an affair with Dmitri. He eventually forgives her, to notice afterward that it’s Roma, his depressed son, who seems to require the most urgent attention. Not neglecting some humor, the grim “Leviathan” strikes us with its landscapes, truths and symbolism, leaving us frozen in our chairs but boiling inside with all the cynicism and terrifying procedures of Mr. Putin’s regime and his vassals. Oddly, the film counted with the support of the Russian Ministry of Culture but didn’t get a screening permit in the country.

The Conductor (2012)

The Conductor (2012) - Movie Review
Directed by: Pavel Lungin
Country: Russia

Movie Review: Delivering less than it promised, “The Conductor”, presents a mix of stories inside a group of performers from a famous Russian orchestra that travels to Jerusalem to perform the religious oratorio ‘St. Matthew Passion’. The drama is centered on the feared conductor Slava Petrov (Vladas Bagdonas) who receives a fax informing about his son’s death in Jerusalem, a few days before his departure. Once there, he’ll learn that his artist son became member of a secluded group, having collected several debts that led him to hang himself. He just left a painting, a replica of the famous ‘The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb’, in which Christ is replaced by his father. In parallel, we can follow the insecurities of a lonely singer who believes he’s not wanted in the orchestra, and the end of a marriage of another singer, Sergey, who feels tied up in the relationship with his jealous and religious-obsessed wife, feeling attracted to Olga whom he met in the plane. Meanwhile, Olga will lost track of her two kids in the perilous market streets of Jerusalem. Despite its fine performances and appealing images, “The Conductor” revealed some trouble embracing the stories and giving them a final strong conclusion. The religious chants created a special mood (the most valuable aspect in the film) that not always corresponded to what the pic was showing us. Made of fatal coincidences and ‘deaf’ dialogues, it adopts serious tones in its attempt to balance all the guilt, pride, faith, and repentance of its characters, a goal that wasn’t totally achieved.

Stalingrad (2013)

Stalingrad (2013) - Movie Review
Directed by: Fedor Bondarchuk
Country: Russia

Movie Review: Shot in 3D for IMAX format, Russian WWII blockbuster “Stalingrad” is excessively graphical and noisy, relying on a deficient narrative to depict the drama lived in 1942 by a group of Russian soldiers in order to keep a strategic building in their possession, after the German onslaught. Some images are grotesque and completely out of reality, like angered soldiers in flames shooting incessantly, and constant use of slow motion to depict the battle scenes, where extremely saturated colors and an ornate composition give a non-natural air to the picture. Through silent ambushes or explosive offensives, the war scenes conveyed fierceness but not exactly reality. At certain point, soldiers from both sides were fighting over the two women stuck inside the building, and not even the story about the five fathers of the narrator, or the explanation on how a famous tenor became cold and cruel after volunteer himself, were interesting enough. Filmmaker Fedor Bondarchuk preferred the elaborated methods, so misleading and exhaustive, to the simple ones capable to create a suspenseful atmosphere. I also can’t choose a performance that has stood out, since everybody seemed lost among the debris. The score composed by the acclaimed Angelo Badalamenti, widely known for his work in David Lynch’s movies, did its part without surprise. Assuredly, “Stalingrad” doesn’t make justice to one of the most important and bloodiest battles of WWII.

A Long and Happy Life (2013)

A Long and Happy Life (2013) - Movie Review
Directed by: Boris Khlebnikov
Country: Russia

Movie Review: Nominated for the Golden Berlin Bear, “A long and happy life”, is the sixth feature film directed by Russian helmer Boris Khlebnikov. The film depicts in gloomy tones, the sad story of Sasha, a farmer who is invited by the local government administrators to close his business, located at the Kola Peninsula, in exchange of a monetary compensation. Trying to fight for a land he put so many efforts in, Sasha realizes he is completely tied by the corrupt authorities and constantly struggles with the idea of having to open the door of poverty to his employees, most of them not so young. The situation gets more complicated when his girlfriend, Anya, who works for the government, doesn’t stay on his side when he decides to stand firm for his farm and workers. The film, with its contemporary story and paradoxical title, wasn’t so new in terms of plot, dragging itself in its heaviness for long periods of time. Don’t get me wrong with my previous statement, because good films not always have an original story. The problem here was simply technical. The direction was uninspired, presenting an excessively moving camera that was not always favorable, and shadowy images sometimes intercalated by two or three beautiful countryside landscapes. The uneven pace had a shake in its violent, yet somewhat predictable final moments, but this wasn’t enough to turn “A long and happy life” into a decisive and memorable film.

Gagarin: First in Space (2013)

Gagarin: First in Space (2013) - Movie Review
Directed by: Pavel Parkhomenko
Country: Russia

Movie Review: “Gagarin: First in Space” is the first biopic of Soviet pilot and cosmonaut, Yuri Gagarin, the first man to reach the outer space, when in April 12, 1961, his spacecraft Vostok 3KA completed an entire orbit around the Earth. Presented in radiant colored tones that recreate decently the 60’s, this state-funded film doesn’t hide its patriotic exacerbation, reinforcing the Soviet strictness, military determination, and national enthusiasm about the man who would open the frontiers of unexplored space. The story focuses on the period right before the tough tests that Gagarin was subjected along with a competitive group of 19 pilots, until his return from space. However, some flashbacks take us to several episodes of his poor childhood, involving his humble parents and brother, and how he met his wife for the first time during a dance ball. Despite his irreproachable career, his private life didn’t reveal anything particularly remarkable, and even his unwarming relationship with his incredulous father was depicted exactly in the way he always behave when facing a stressful situation: cold and unemotional. The fact that production designer turned director Parkhomenko (who worked in Alexey Balabanov’s films) has left behind the last seven years of Gagarin’s life, including the jet crash that caused his death in 1968, and the speculations about conspiracy involving it, must seem incomplete in the eyes of many. Production values are strong, while the special effects aren’t exuberant but appropriate.

In The Fog (2012)

In The Fog (2012)
Directed by: Sergei Loznitsa
Country: Russia / others

Review: Sergei Loznitsa’s sophomore film “In The Fog” presents the same approach of “My Joy”, evincing the same depressive mood, the same desolated scenarios, cold interactions among the characters, and a strong psychological component, but without being so invigorating and opting for a dragging pace that leads to a difficult watching. Set in 1942, it tells the grim story of Sheshenya, an innocent Byelorussian rail worker, who was the only one to be freed by the Germans after being captured along with other three soviet partisans accused of derail a German train. This inexplicable fact made the partisans conclude that Sheshenya was a traitor. One day, without surprise, two partisans arrived to his place and took him to a forest to punish him with death, but along the way the plans were changed. Adapted from a short novel by Vasili Bykov, “In The Fog” presents an intriguing structure, reconstructing these men’s past in order to help us understand what was behind their actions. Even overlong and emotionally cold, its cinematography and non-moralistic story of despair, stick in our head and refuse to abandon us completely, which proves the strength of the tale. But when I think in its lack of pace, weighted delays, and excess of meticulousness, I see some limitations that could be easily avoided by shortening some long static shots and perhaps reduce the same grave silence used on every scene.

White Tiger (2012)

White Tiger (2012)
Directed by: Karen Shakhnazarov
Country: Russia

Review: Based on Ilya Boyashov’s fictional novel “Tankman”, “White Tiger” is an eerie tale that mixes war and supernatural to portray the improbable story of one of the best Russian tank drivers of WWII. During an operation against the Germans, this tank driver got burned in 90% of his body when he was hit by a mysterious tank known as White Tiger. Practically given up for dead, he has a miraculous recovery in a few weeks, revealing a strange sixth sense that will help him to accomplish his mission of destroying White Tiger and avenge his own fate. Having lost his memory, he was renamed Naydenov and promptly reattached to military service. As a ghost, only him could see White Tiger, which according to his words was an indestructible tank commanded by dead. After these spooky revelations, the hunt begins, painted in beautiful colors and alluring visuals of destruction and claustrophobia. The film showed nerve in the way that made the absurdity of the story seem naturally serious. The performance by Aleksey Vertkov was convincing, while the music of Richard Wagner enhanced the tense moments. Even using a minimal story and a few details in the plot that were hard to swallow, “White Tiger” spread some freshness with its exquisite taste, hypnotic war scenes, and final mention of an abominable philosophy described by the Reich himself. An absurdly original piece of cinema.

Twilight Portrait (2012)

Twilight Portrait (2012)
Directed by: Angelina Nikonova
Country: Russia

Review: Angelina Nikonova’s directorial debut is a bleak portrait of a decadent Russia and also a curious character study. The approach in "Twilight Portrait" is raw, with intense and realistic scenes. It was a shame that some details hampered its chances of being more effective. I think the movie would have caused much more impact without the first scene, which serves as a warning for what will come next, losing the surprise factor. Marina, the main character, was brutally raped. Yet, the fact that she had been working with abused children, seemed too calculated by the screenwriters. Despite of these considerations, Marina’s baffling behavior kept me interested till the end, in a film that didn't spare an amoral Russia, where the lack of professionalism, bureaucracy, coldness and violence, are too evident issues to be ignored.

Fortress Of War (2010)

Directed by: Aleksandr Kott
Country: Russia

Plot: A war drama set during the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941, in which Russian troops held on to a border stronghold for nine days.
Review: Beautifully shot, “Fortress of War” is based on the real events happened in Brest Fortress, Belarus, before and after the invasion of the German troops in 1941. The peaceful scenario of the beginning soon changes to an authentic human slaughter. The violence is frequently too explicit - gunshots, explosions and dismembered people are everywhere throughout the film. For over two hours we can have an intense but also tiresome experience, testifying a real example of Russian patriotism and resistance. Recommended, for ones who have stomach for heavy content.
Relevant awards: -

Faust (2011)

Directed by: Aleksandr Sokurov
Country: Russia

Plot: A version of the German legend in which a man sells his soul to the devil in exchange of knowledge.
Quick comment: Master direction from Sokurov in this loose and controversial, though captivating, adaptation of Goethe's literary work. Every frame is like a painting made with brush strokes of grotesque and profanity. As in most of his movies, the adopted style and mood are not easy to assimilate at once, whereas its creative approach has something to say in a time where fresh new ideas are very welcomed.
Relevant Awards: Golden Lion at Venice Film Festival, Italy.