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The contemporary heroes of Russia's patriotic cinema 3 films that set the tone for national identity in recent years
In the past few years, there have been several noteworthy efforts in Russian cinema and television to capture the country's contemporary reality and depict recent history. Film critic Sergei Sinyakov examined more than two dozen such attempts to dramatize “the Russian man today,” and here he reviews three: Pavel Lungin's adaptation of “Homeland,” Igor Voloshin's film “Fast Moscow-Russia,” and the TV movie “Russian Character” by Aleksandr Yakimchuk.
Creating a patriotic movie with contemporary subject matter requires of filmmakers various talents, but most of all it demands a certain flexibility and an acute sense of conjuncture, insofar as political agendas change rapidly, and the film made today could be hopelessly dated by tomorrow.
“Homeland” (Rodina), directed by Pavel Lungin, Russia, 2015 (ages 12 and up)
On a mission in the North Caucasus, Russian commandos locate and free paratrooper Major Alexander Bragin, who spent six years in captivity and was presumed dead back home in Moscow. When he gets home, Bragin is greeted as a hero. But something is amiss: intelligence officer Anna Zimina suspects that Bragin has been recruited by Islamists and is preparing to carry out a terrorist attack in Moscow.
Russian patriots accused Pavel Lungin's first—and best—film, “Taxi Blues” (1990), of seeking laughs from foreign audiences at Russia's expense. (The same claim would be made against one of his later movies, “The Wedding.”) Today, Lungin is perhaps Russian cinema's biggest advocate of Russian Orthodoxy, and nobody would call any of his recent films “anti-Russian.” But he's hardly a jingoist, either. When it comes to ideological issues, Lungin has demonstrated impressive flexibility. His “Homeland” adaptation certainly demands flexibility: the show's credits say it is based on the original Israeli show, “Prisoners of War,” but it's of course compared relentlessly to the American version that still airs on Showtime.
The Russian and American adaptations are similar (at first, they're almost identical, frame by frame), but there are important differences. The US show unfolds in the here and now, while the Russian version is set in the spring of 1999, just before the Putin era of stability. Unlike the American show, the main protagonist doesn't suffer from manic depression, but an anxiety disorder. She doesn't serve in the Federal Security Service (Russia's chief anti-terrorist police force, which Vladimir Putin headed at the time), but in some mysterious anti-terrorist center under the management of officials who are more incompetent than malevolent. The terrorists aren't Chechen militants (which would make sense, given the timeframe), but extremists apparently from the United Arab Emirates. Somehow connected to the mujahideens is the chairman of Russia's Security Council, Oleg Basov, a rotten egg with presidential ambitions. He's also no fan of his speechwriter's purple prose: “‘With Gaidar's lips and teeth, Yeltsin's democracy has chewed up the people's savings.’ What do you think?” “It's lousy. I don't like it.”
If Sergeant Brody in “Homeland” was a traitor, albeit a man who tried to redeem himself, Vladimir Mashkov's Bragin is something trickier. The Battle of Kulikovo (the turning point, when Mongol influence began to wane and Moscovite power started to rise) keeps replaying in his head. On the one hand, Bragin prays to Allah. On the other hand, he fancies himself the new Alexander Peresvet—the monk who died killing the Tatar champion in single combat at the battle's opening. He teaches his children that you have to sneak up as close as possible to your enemies. Bragin's fight isn't against the state, but the “murderers and liars” entrenched in high office: “My actions today are for the good of Russia, in the name of her purification,” he says. And the show's finale takes place inside Lenin's tomb.
Despite the abundance of historical source material, a second season for Russia's “Homeland” doesn't appear to be in the offing. Going forward in history, there are the terrorist attacks in Moscow, Volgodonsk, and Buinaksk. No amount of flexibility, however, would be enough to weave these events into a story on Russian television today.
“Fast Moscow-Russia,” directed by Igor Voloshin, Russia, 2014 (ages 12 and up)
Serge, a star of the Russian Internet, wakes up with a hangover aboard a train from Moscow to Vladivostok. He falls from his top bunk into Mila, a blonde American actress with Russian roots. The Hollywood star doesn't find herself in the cheap seats on a long Russian train ride for no reason: she's fighting vertigo and needs to be in the east for the filming of an American movie about the Second World War, where she's playing a pilot. Serge's situation is a bit more complicated: the night before, he signed a contract stating that he must ride the train to Vladivostok, sleep with a stewardess, and record on his phone a video of an Amur tiger during the coming meteor shower. If he fails to carry out the terms of the agreement, he loses his apartment, his summer cabin, and his car.
When a half-wit is drugged in a treacherous plot to steal his property, of course it's by foreigners. A chance encounter with a group of Germans during a night of drinking begins the story. With the confidence Germans have displayed throughout history, they expect it to be easy to take Serge, a seemingly defenseless and disorganized opponent. They don't grasp that Russia's strength lies in the irrational frenzy of its mass slovenliness—that common sense and logic don't stand a chance in a battle with this force. Serge glides through life with the relaxed confidence of a surfer. Nothing really ruffles his feathers, and his path leads him where it will.
At first, Mila is justifiably terrified by her surrounding environment, but she quickly learns from her companion the art of living. Long dormant in her trim Hollywood frame, a Russian soul awakens and eventually bursts forth. At the beginning of the film, Mila is popping pills and says she only knows one song (the American national anthem), but by the end she's drinking counterfeit vodka and getting her cultural education in hits by the Russian rock band Lyube. More than once, Mila faces death in her ancestral homeland, but the experience only makes her stronger. The movie finishes in Hollywood's style: Mila collects an acting award, and her husband from Russia is there with her, wearing a tuxedo. The film is still very recent, but today it already feels ideologically dated.
A few years earlier, director Igor Voloshin already said his piece about patriotism with the war propaganda movie “Olympus Inferno” (about an American's adventures in South Ossetia during the 2008 war between Russia and Georgia). “Fast Moscow-Russia” is packed with jokes (though they're not terribly funny), and was intended to be Russian patriotism's manifesto with a human face—a very ugly face, it must be said. Outwardly, Russians seem stupid and sleepy, but their minds, it turns out, are shrewd and cunning. (Serge's plans for the American woman who trusts him are entirely mercantile, and the snack vendor on the train has no problem robbing the passengers.) Russians seem defenseless, but then they're revealed to be cruel. (An old doddling woman peddles “vodka” that is really poisonous windshield-cleaning fluid.) Russians are friendly, but at any moment they're ready to murder their neighbor. (The stewardess kicks a passenger out a moving train.) “Fast Moscow-Russia” is an outlandish and wild movie, capable of rousing the Russophobe in the Russophile, and vice versa.
“Russian Temper,” directed by Aleksandr Yakimchuk, Russia, 2014 (ages 16 and up)
Maxim Fadeyev, a naval officer in Russia's Black Sea Fleet, visits his hometown outside Sevastopol, following the death of his grandfather. When he arrives, he learns that his grandfather was likely killed by gangsters. Fadeyev's shore leave soon becomes a full Russian revolt, packed full of bullets flying and barricades built out of car tires.
“You're going to Crimea? What's the point of going to Ukraine? Your own shores aren't enough?” Fadeyev's commanding officers ask him. “I decided that it would be better for our son to spend his vacation in Turkey, rather than in that Crimea of yours,” he soon hears from his boy's patriotically-challenged mother (Fadeyev's ex-wife, it goes without saying). “For some people, Crimea is Ukrainian, and for others it is Russian,” the film's hero answers, foretelling the political events to come. (The film takes place in the summer of 2013, a year before Russia reabsorbed the peninsula.)
“Russian Temper” is a one-dimensional movie made on a small budget (by the television station NTV), but it has all the hallmarks of any classic Western. The lone hero returns to a quaint town desecrated by villains. The bad guys—Ukrainian nationalist “Banderovtsy”—do whatever they want: they swig horilka, buddy up with the corrupt local sheriff, break into the mayor's office in broad daylight, and hold a rope around his neck. They're backed by a state official from Kiev who greatly resembles today's prime minister, Arseniy Yatsenyuk, and a CIA agent, who declares openly and in a foreign accent, “I need this land.” (The other villains are easy to spot because they all speak Ukrainian, while all the good guys speak Russian.) The movie also has a proud, beautiful woman, a short priest, and frightened natives—all waiting for a hero.
And then the hero appears, played effortlessly by TV actor Aleksandr Fisenko—Russia's patented warrior-patriot. A professional soldier who finds action while on vacation, he's still preeminently a “polite person.” (Before taking up arms, Fadeyev goes through all the official channels. He endures being humiliated, but he refuses to let anyone beat him up.) Fadeyev is the potential hero of a whole movie franchise whose producers can always find someone who needs rescuing in some new part of the world—maybe even in Turkey. (Viewers never learn how Fadeyev's son fared on his vacation. There's your sequel right there.) Future installments could take place anywhere. The hostile world, after all, stretches far and wide.
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