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‘The President's Vacation’ A trashy new film reinvigorates Russian cinema with a comedy about Putin

Meduza
Luxor

Late last month, the first movie directed by Ilya Sherstobitov hit Russian theaters. “The President’s Vacation” is a comedy about an unnamed commander in chief (clearly modeled on Vladimir Putin) deciding to travel Russia incognito to learn more about his people. For all the movie’s dubious artistic merits, film critic Anton Dolin says Sherstobitov's comedy actually succeeds quite wittily in lifting the Russian movie industry’s unspoken taboo on “films about Putin.”

Would you like a real surprise? Forget about Asian hardcore action movies, Hollywood blockbusters, auteurs, and festival experiments. If you’re a moviegoer in Russia today, you should get yourself to a showing of “The President's Vacation” — a new comedy by first-time director Ilya Sherstobitov.

Before you walk into the theater, though, be warned that you won’t grasp the film’s artistic components right away. They might elude you forever, in fact. There are, you see, good movies, mediocre movies, and bad movies — and then there is “The President's Vacation.” The film interweaves inventive chutzpah with basic unprofessionalism, profound subject matter with superficiality, a lack of intentional humor with brilliant accidental humor, and inappropriate casting with perfectly captured character types. As you watch all this come together in the movie, all you can do is shrug and enjoy it.

“The President's Vacation” recalls the low-budget cooperatively-funded movies of the early 1990s, with their trashy opulence and disregard for the rules of good taste. It's such a shame we have age ratings these days! Without them, “The President's Vacation” would certainly feature plenty of naked women and men, dirty jokes, bad language, and unimaginable violence. Sadly, viewers now have to imagine all that on their own. Even so, in today’s sterilized film industry, a movie like this sticks out like a shiny gold tooth. It’s no wonder that the film was made without any state funding, relying entirely on independent resources.

All this hardly matters, however, in the context of the most important thing about this movie: It is a comedy about Vladimir Putin.

“The President's Vacation” takes its storyline from Mark Twain’s “The Prince and the Pauper.” Tired of obsequious advisors and the phony Potemkin villages assembled when he visits towns across the country, the film’s “president” character — Vladimir Putin in all but name — announces that he will take a week’s vacation to relax among the Russian people. To avoid being recognized, he dons a mask that magically transforms him into an expressionless “ordinary Joe.” The quick-witted goons at the Federal Protection Service call it “Operation Vysotsky” — a nod to Sergey Bezrukov’s uncredited portrayal of the Soviet musician Vladimir Vysotsky in a 2011 film. The president is issued a fake passport and given the name “Vladimir Semenovich Utin.” Meanwhile, Valera — the guy whose face was used to make the president's new mask — is on the run from debt collectors and is immediately mistaken for the president in disguise.

Valera soon finds himself vacationing at a luxurious resort in Crimea, thinking he managed to score the trip using one of his mother’s social-security vouchers. In fact, he’s staying at a sanatorium rebuilt specifically for the president by officials hoping to make his vacation as pleasant as possible. The resort even features a game show contest hosted by the real-life celebrity Dmitry Dibrov, who plays himself. Valera is surrounded by accommodating vacationers and deferential hotel staff — all agents from Russia’s intelligence services, who surreptitiously solicit his opinions about “how to fix Russia,” and act immediately based on whatever comes out of his mouth.

Meanwhile, the president in his Vladimir Utin disguise courageously hitchhikes his way across the country to Crimea with a fetching school teacher who was recently robbed by her own boyfriend. For the first time since coming to power 18 years ago, the president gets a chance to see Russia without rose-tinted glasses.

These are the film’s two Putins: one is an incognito, noble, and strong-willed Harun al-Rashid whose composure and integrity partly recall the archetypical father character in Andrey Zvyagintsev's film “The Return.” The other is a schmo who is mistaken for a man of high office, not unlike Khlestakov in Gogol’s “The Government Inspector.”

Oddly, Dmitry Grachev, the popular Putin impersonator, who features in the credits and on the poster, appears on screen only at the very beginning and end of the film. (Apparently he also voices the “Utin” character.)

“The President's Vacation” both subverts Russia’s taboo on depicting “Putin as a character” in motion pictures and simultaneously upholds it. Putin, as it were, is constantly on screen, but he is totally unrecognizable. Whatever you think about the movie, this is clearly progress for the industry. For example, “The Kiss” — a film about Putin’s personal life — never reached Russian cinemas. Dmitry Grachev portrayed Putin in another film, “The Kitchen,” but the role was small, like in “The Patsies” by Sarik Andreasyan. And the widely advertised TV sitcom “Yes, Mr. President!” with Grachev in the lead role was dropped for some reason after a single season.

Against this backdrop, Sherstobitov's movie is almost revolutionary. According to rumors, the release date was postponed repeatedly, and a distribution license wasn’t issued until after the March 18 presidential election.

So who takes Grachev’s place in the film? Valera and Utin are played by Oleg Vasilkov, who doesn’t bear the slightest resemblance to Putin but perfectly fits the role of “collective Putin.” The 47-year-old actor has had roughly 90 parts in film and television — usually supporting roles. Over the years, he’s played both good guys and bad: a criminal (“Brat 2”), a gangster (“Law of the Lawless”), and a convict (“Beemer: The Sequel”), as well as a riot cop (“Flint”), a KGB investigator (“Red Queen”), and an FSB captain (“All Limits Are Off”).

In one of his guises, the protagonist is called upon not only to see the real Russia but also to show it to us — an impossible task in a movie so conventional in terms of genre and style. This Russia has been pushed to the brink of catastrophe by endemic lies, laziness, and corruption: When a fat priest’s big SUV holds up traffic, the priest threatens to curse anyone who complains; traffic police post fake road signs to con bribes out of travelers; robbers break into a vehicle in broad daylight; and intelligence agencies spy endlessly on Russia’s citizens. As soon as you turn off the highway, you’re confronted by poverty and injustice.

There is one bright spot in this colorful picture worthy of Gogol: Utin himself. Honest and principled, he is horrified at what he sees and vows to himself to remedy everything. Completing the fantasy, reality seems to meet him halfway, and responds by starting to reform itself spontaneously. Later in the film, the heroes meet another priest, but this one is basically a high-minded living saint; hospitable Don Cossacks invite them to a festive multicultural wedding (admittedly, they drunkenly fire a machine gun and joke that they can almost hit America); and a sweet little old lady tells Utin that he’s the spitting image of her long-lost son. By the time the disguised president and his companion finally reach Crimea’s shores, there’s nothing to spoil the goodwill in the air.

“The President's Vacation” official trailer
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While he certainly brings to the screen the Russian maxim of “bad boyars, good tsar,” Sherstobitov doesn't forget to depict the tsar’s arbitrariness, either. As Russia’s unwitting leader, Valera carries out several national reforms. First, he forgives all loans and bans the activities of debt collectors. Then he withdraws Russia’s army engineers from Syria and orders them to start repairing the roads in the Ivanovo and Ryazan regions. Finally, he exiles the celebrity hairstylist Sergey Zverev and “all that lot” to an apparently uninhabited island.

This is simultaneously a witty illustration of voters’ muddled fantasies about “how to fix Russia” and a political message: Power is special and cannot be entrusted to just anybody. It’s noteworthy that the film’s rosy epilogue, where the status quo is restored, doesn’t say anything about rescinding Valera’s executive orders.

“I'm fed up with living in your fake reality,” the president declares in one of the film’s opening scenes. As the movie continues, it becomes clear that Russians aren’t meant to live in any other reality, no matter how hard they try. Even changing your face isn’t enough. The movie itself isn’t capable of analyzing the Russia of 2018, but it provides a wealth of material for others to do so.

“The President’s Vacation” is unique in Russian cinema for being a film where Crimea is described openly as land that was stolen and occupied. The character who makes this observation, moreover, is one of the picture’s most sympathetic figures: the stepfather of the teacher from Voronezh, who gives his last 5,000 rubles ($90) to his adoptive daughter for her vacation. At the same time, however, Crimea is presented as a magnet and an earthly paradise, without which Russians (let alone the president) simply cannot survive.

The movie doesn’t even hint at the possibility of regime change. From the opening credits, it’s clear that Putin is forever. Over the past six years, life in Russia has gotten tougher, but most voters still support their president. Why? Political analysts have racked their brains over this question for some time. Does it come down to coercion? Lies? Bogus statistics? If you believe “The President’s Vacation,” the answer is much simpler: Putin is not a real man or politician. He is, in fact, everyone’s projection. When voting for Putin, people are actually voting for themselves. They’re voting for an imaginary Crimean paradise and a deluxe suite at a resort that doesn’t exist, though that doesn’t stop Russians from wanting to visit, one day.

Text by Anton Dolin, translation by Peter Marshall