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“Of all the arts, cinema is the most important to us,” said Lenin, in a remark that’s repeated by the 9-year-old heroine of My Love Mary Pickford. It’s a comment that haunts most of the six entries in the American Film Institute’s current Russian Film Festival. With the early films of Dziga Vertov (The Man With a Movie Camera) and Sergei Eisenstein (Strike, The Battleship Potemkin), cinema both applauded and advanced the Russian revolution, but the spirit of that period was soon lost. Many of these post-Soviet films, all made between 1992 and 1996, attempt to recapture and reassess the heady energy of the U.S.S.R.’s beginnings: Two of them are set in the ’20s, shortly after the revolution, and two more in the late ’40s and early ’50s, when victory in World War II seemed to portend a new era of unified purpose.
The most charming and powerful of these films is My Love Mary Pickford (June 12 at 6:30 p.m., June 14 at 9 p.m.), a remarkable marriage of outright comedy and implicit tragedy. Nine-year-old Shura (the dazzlingly expressive Olia Yevtushenko) is a small-town Young Pioneer who knows all the dogma and can deliver it convincingly. She sings the praises of industrialization and solemnly informs her icon-worshipping grandmother that there is no God. Shura is not a natural communist, however. She’s a natural performer, and she dares to proclaim publicly that she wants to be a famous actress like Mary Pickford.
Some are outraged by her remark, notably the more uptight of the two leaders
of Shura’s Young Pioneers cadre. The ideological prig organizes a public denunciation and shunning of Shura. “If everyone starts realizing her dreams,” asks the skeptic, “then what
“Socialism,” replies Shura.
Her answer plays well with Shura’s enthusiastic local audience, but director Vladimir Levin offers ominous hints that the girl’s idea of revolution will not triumph. He intercuts his story with official Soviet footage of campaigns against priests, landowners, and other alleged reactionaries, foreshadowing the oppression that would soon destroy all vestiges of post-revolutionary utopianism. The film ends with Shura doing her best impression of a Soviet Shirley Temple, but the clear implication is that shewith her rosy idealsis headed not for Hollywood but for Siberia.
Director and co-writer Gennady Poloka gives similar themes a more ponderous treatment in Return of the Battleship (June 12 at 8:30 p.m., June 14 at 1 p.m.), in which art enjoys a rare triumph over politics. Shortly after the revolution, battle hero and ideological hard-liner Herz (Mikhail Urzhumtsev) is sent to Odessa and given an assignment wholly out of keeping with his character: He’s the new head of the performers’ union. He nonetheless tries to do his duty, which means insisting that members of the union be hired to work in the many films being shot in Odessa, which was briefly the Soviet Union’s Hollywood. He’s outraged when an upstart director comes to town and insists on casting only nonactors for his new film: It’s Sergei Eisenstein, and he’s making Potemkin. After the movie is released, Herz realizes he was wrong, but it’s the power of love more than cinema that alters his political rigidity. At 161 minutes, this movie is too long for such a minor premise, but film buffs will surely enjoy Poloka’s loving homages to Eisenstein, especially his recreation of Potemkin’s famous Odessa Steps sequence.
Unlike most of these films, Horses Taking Me Away (June 13 at 4 p.m., June 14 at 6:45 p.m.) owes more to Russian literature than Soviet cinema. Writer-director Vladimir Motyl takes his scenario from Chekhov’s The Duel and makes reference as well to Gogol, Pushkin, and Tolstoy. Told in flashbacks and flash-forwards, this is the tale of young lawyer Vanya (Andrei Sokolov), who convinces the beautiful Nadya (Agneska Wagner) to abandon her older husband for him. They leave the snowy north for Crimea, where the sunniness offers an ironic counterpoint as Vanya sinks into Dostoevskian self-loathing. He destroys most of his relationships, although Nadya sticks dejectedly by him, until ultimately one of Vanya’s former friends challenges him to a duel. That may seem an archaic development, but this film is emphatically set in the present, where the ubiquitous bribes are paid in U.S. dollars and old ethnic hostilities are bubbling to the surface.
Savva Kulish’s The Iron Curtain (June 13 at 6:30 p.m.) would be a typical postwar Bildungsroman if not for its sweepit’s four hours longand setting. In Moscow between 1947 and 1957, young Kostya encounters a succession of shakedowns, crackdowns, and everyday tyrannies. (The cops regularly raid the building where the boy and his family live, looking for people who don’t have the residency papers required to live in the city.) Although the apparently autobiographical story centers around Kostya, it’s not short on context: Kulish layers it with documentary footage both real and fakethe film begins with an account of Churchill’s “Iron Curtain” speechas well as dream sequences and segments from the American and French movies that tantalize Kostya and his pals with a very different existence. Once again, the possibilities of a brave new world tangle with the grim actualities of the existing order.
Petr Todorovsky’s Encore, Once More Encore (June 11 at 8:45 p.m., June 14 at 4:30 p.m.) is also autobiographical, set on a Soviet army base in the early ’50s. The thrill of the victory over fascism has been replaced by petty ideological squabbles, choruses dutifully rehearsing hymns in praise of Stalin, and a wide range of sexual misconduct, including adultery and bigamy: While a young lieutenant pursues an affair with his commanding officer’s wife, the senior officer is distracted by the arrival of his other spouse. The lighthearted romantic intrigue is tempered, however, by the capricious brutality of Stalinist purges.
The least interesting of these films is The Peculiarities of the National Hunt (June 11 at 6:30 p.m., June 13 at 2 p.m.), a slapstick account of a Finn’s hunting trip with some hard-drinking Russians. As the title suggests, writer-director Alexander Rogozhkin’s comedy plays on national stereotypes; it may be hilarious if you’re a Finn or a Russian. (The movie was a box-office hit in Russia.) The principal gag involves the Russian national enthusiasm for vodka. The drink proves a useful bribe, but it’s also a source of problems, notably when a bear cub who’s developed a taste for the stuff attacks the hunters to get some more.
The directors of all six films are expected to appear to discuss their work.
While monster lizards stumble and killer asteroids crash in other films, one of the summer’s likely hits, Six Days, Seven Nights, relies on the simplest of premises: Girl meets boy, girl hates boy, girl and boy share a few modest adventures, girl changes mind. Of course, the boy in this case is wizened beach-bum pilot Quinn (Harrison Ford), Han Solo gone to seed in the South Pacific, and the girl is cynical women’s-magazine editor Robin, played by America’s most famous bisexual ingénue (Anne Heche). But director Ivan Reitman and scripter Michael Browning don’t let this mismatch of age and notoriety interfere with the movie’s mechanical progress.
Vacationing Robin jets to Tahiti with boyfriend Frank (David Schwimmer) and then reluctantly continues to a remote island resort in a clunker piloted by Quinn. When her boss insists she return to Tahiti for a photo shoot, Robin has no choice but to hire Quinn again. This time, they fly into an electrical storm and are forced to crash-land on a large but uninhabited island. There they bicker, adapt to their surroundings, clash with murderous pirates, and fall in love. Meanwhile, Frank is back at the resort, with nothing to do but be tempted by Quinn’s ditzy, voluptuous exotic-dancer girlfriend Angelica (Jacqueline Obradors).
Compare this to Nicolas Roeg’s Castaway, based on a true story, in which a similar South Seas marriage of convenience between a piggish older man and a plucky younger woman soon leads to mutual loathing. That film has no pirates but considerably more emotional depth. (Oddly enough, Six Days, Seven Nights does contain one editing tour de force that’s almost Roegian, a feverish bout of cross-cutting between Angelica’s drum-driven dance and Quinn and Robin’s pirouette into the sea.)
Emotional depth and Ghostbusters veteran Ivan Reitman, of course, don’t go together. Wildly implausible but crisply efficient, Six Days, Seven Nights means to be a ’40s-style Hollywood romantic comedy, updated to suit modern standards of sexual propriety and cheap yuks. (Both Quinn and Robin are provided with emergencies in which they have to grope inside the other one’s pants.) Although Quinn is a classic Hollywood archetype of the competent, protective male, he’s allowed a little vulnerability, and Robin ultimately rises to the challenges provided by the pirates and the couple’s planned escape from the island.
Still, the film’s most contemporary moment comes when Quinn tells Robin he’s too old for her. Having acknowledged this chronic Hollywood casting dilemma, however, Reitman and Browning clam up: Rather than have him openly acknowledge his age, they let Quinn just whisper it in Robin’s ear. Six Days, Seven Nights is hardly the sort of movie in which people say uncomfortable truths out loud.CP