25 Oct 2016

Russian Resurrection – a festival from left field

From Widescreen, 10:32 am on 25 October 2016

The Russian Resurrection Film Festival is a fascinating survey of a surprising national cinema, says Dan Slevin.

Traffic cop Dmitry Nagiyev is having a great day but doesn't know the price he’ll have to pay for it later on in Very Best Day.

Traffic cop Dmitry Nagiyev is having a great day but doesn't know the price he’ll have to pay for it later on in Very Best Day. Photo: Russian Resurrection

Another week, another film festival, at least that’s how it can sometimes feel. But the Russian Resurrection festival is something a little different. Well, it’s Russian for a start. And evidently, the organisers feel that there’s something that needs resurrecting.

But Russian cinema seems in fine fettle, especially if the selection playing at the Rialto in Auckland this week is anything to go by. In 2011 Russia produced nearly 150 feature films that sold over 32 million tickets – 18 percent of total admissions. And while this festival has a nod to the great cinema of Russia’s past – there’s a screening of Eisenstein’s Soviet-era epic Ivan the Terrible on Sunday afternoon – the focus is on the films that are setting the box office on fire today. Or tomorrow, in fact, as some of these titles (like The Duelist) haven’t even been released domestically yet.

I’ve been lucky enough to be shown three of this year’s selection and found them to be a fascinating insight into a country that contains multitudes – and a cinema that wants to entertain them as bigly as it can.

The brave pilots about to be tested by earthquakes, volcanos and crumbling runways covered with lava in Flight Crew.

The brave pilots about to be tested by earthquakes, volcanos and crumbling runways covered with lava in Flight Crew. Photo: Russian Resurrection

Russia’s hottest film (at the box office) this year is Flight Crew, a demented thrill-ride of a disaster movie that looks like the makers were inspired by the Supermarionation antics of the Thunderbirds in the 60s but in fact is a remake of a 1979 smash hit. In the first act we are introduced to a handsome, talented and principled military pilot played by Danila Kozlovsky. So principled he is kicked out of the army for choosing to jettison an officer’s luxury car rather than emergency supplies for refugees when they get in to stormy weather.

Grudgingly, he goes to work in civil aviation, becoming a co-pilot for a local airline alongside the gruff senior man who we’ll eventually discover has a heart of gold. On a routine flight they receive a distress call from an island that’s also an actively erupting volcano. Of course, they attempt a rescue mission but things go from bad to worse and they’ll need all their skills, bravery and derring-do to keep their own passengers alive as well as rescue everyone else.

Staggeringly unbelievable on almost every level, you’ll gasp with amazement at every unlikely manoeuvre. I think the mid-air passenger transfer between two jet airliners was my favourite. All the stops are pulled out by director Nikolay Lebedev and the result is more entertaining than it has any right to be.

Ultimately even more entertaining, but for long periods like watching a car crash, Very Best Day (aka The Best Day Ever) defies rational explanation. Imagine if Ken Loach had tried to make a Bollywood film but a long-supressed love of the Carry On series had distracted him.

Peter (Dmitry Nagiyev) is a country traffic cop and former drunk, engaged to the pretty Olga (Yuliya Aleksandrova). One quiet afternoon a pop star crashes her SUV into his patrol car and then takes advantage of his weakness to seduce him with sex and vodka, opening his eyes to the enticements of fame and fortune but ultimately crushing his dreams of a life with the straightforward and decent Olga.

Broadly satirical and with odd musical interludes – everyone gets a solo – for a long time you don’t know whether this film loves or despises its characters but the final dance number convinces you that it has a romantic heart beating under the manic, throw-everything-at-the-screen, tornado of visuals.

Vodka is never far from the centre of life in Very Best Day and some kind of lip service is being paid to the idea that too much too often might not be very sensible but everyone appears to be having too much fun to take that idea truly to heart.

Finally, in my mini-Russian festival, a much darker film. The Student was a minor sensation at Cannes this year and you can see why people were so taken with it. In the translation I saw, the title in English was The Disciple and it’s based on a stage play called Martyr so you can see that it might be dealing with some heavy themes.

Ardent young school student Pyotr Skvortsov makes a point to his classmates in The Student.

Ardent young school student Pyotr Skvortsov makes a point to his classmates in The Student. Photo: Russian Resurrection

High school student Veniamin (played with the intensity and look of a young Michael Shannon by Pyotr Skvortsov) has fallen under the spell of the bible, taking on board every verse as unimpeachable truth and quoting it freely at everyone in the school who he disapproves of. Which is everyone.

The girls showing too much of their bodies in the swimming pool, the teachers trying to educate the school about evolution and biology, even the orthodox priest responsible for religious education is the object of the youngster’s vicious derision. His solo mum doesn’t know what to do with him, especially when he turns his bedroom into a kind of monastic cell, boarding up the windows and tearing down the wallpaper.

Only one friend, the lonely young boy with one leg shorter than the other, seems to want to be around him, especially when he’s convinced that the power of prayer might fix his disability.

What’s fascinating about the film is how the boy’s ardent and single-minded belief uncovers similar attitudes in those around him – anti-semitism, conservative values, ignorance, homophobia – and only one brave teacher, Viktoriya Isakova, struggles to hold the line of science and enlightenment.

Superb production design and clever direction contribute to making The Student one of the most interesting watches I’ve had this year.

The Russian Resurrection Film Festival is playing from Tuesday 25 to Sunday 30 October at Rialto Cinema, Newmarket, Auckland before expanding a bit and going on to Sydney, Canberra, Brisbane, Perth and Melbourne.         

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