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Arts + CultureMoviesScreen Grabs: What do we want? Bleak, rewarding films...

Screen Grabs: What do we want? Bleak, rewarding films from the former USSR!

Intense government cover-up drama Dear Comrades!, Atlantis, Beginning, and Tarkovsky's 'Mirror' restored

Every year countries choose their own submission to the Oscars’ Best International Feature. It’s a bit of an odd process that allows for some popular exports to be neglected—while government-controlled-industry cronyism in certain nations allows acclaimed films to be passed over for whatever POS is the officially sanctioned prestige release. The latter scenario can result in situations like the nomination of six films (including a couple real dogs) that were directed by veteran Russian actor and nationalist Nikita Mikhalkov… who also happens to be the head of the Russian Cinematographers’ Union, as well as a Putin favorite. 

Nonetheless, the list of foreign Oscar submissions, which seems to grow every year, provides a fascinating sampler of filmmaking talent and trends worldwide. It used to be that you could only gaze at the list wistfully, since very few would be seen in the US beyond festival dates.

But recently some institutions have taken it on themselves to provide annual surveys of those submissions, including the Rafael Film Center, which is currently hosting a streaming “For Your Consideration”(more info here) selection of 31 current foreign Oscar entries through Feb. 11. That platform and a couple coincidentally well-timed additional releases make it a particularly good moment to revel in new arthouse cinema from former Soviet territories… despite our above-noted grousing re: Russia. (Its 2020 nominee Dear Comrades! is from another, far more deserving veteran director, see below.) 

The first two such prize-winning features, from Ukraine and Georgia, offer arthouse cinema of the most austere kind. They’re bleak and challenging, but if you have the patience, both are worth a look. 

Valentyn Vasyanovych’s ironically named Atlantis is set in a bombed-out Ukraine of the near future, after years of civil unrest and hostilities with Russia have left much of the country in ruins. Unable to socially re-integrate due to PTSD, ex-military Sergiy (Adriy Rymaruk) decides he might as well help volunteers driving into “The Zone” to find soldiers’ corpses for proper burial, hopefully avoiding still-active land mines en route. 

Beautiful in the mode of photos of industrial wastelands, Atlantis sports an atmosphere of post-apocalyptic existential crisis, numbed to all violence and catastrophe. But there are also flecks of humor, and finally some hope for the reclamation of ordinary human feeling. It’s a very striking if potentially alienating experience that nevertheless can be riveting, if you slow your own viewing pulse down to accommodate the film’s glacial, distanced tenor. Atlantis is currently streaming in Rafael@Home’s For Your Consideration (more info here) series, and (as of Fri/29) at BAMPFA From Home (more info here).

In Dea Kulumbgashvili’s Georgian debut feature Beginning, a different kind of war is taking place—a stealth cultural one of religious intolerance. Yana (Ia Sukhitashvili) is a former actress married to evangelical minister David (Rati Oneli); as he’s assigned to build parishes in different areas, they’ve already moved several times with their preadolescent son. Now they’re living in the small rural community where Yana grew up. Yet despite those personal roots, their championing of nontraditional Christian doctrine as Jehovah’s Witnesses once again triggers suspicion and hostility. 

At the start, a daytime gathering is interrupted by a shocking attack (all the more shocking because, as staged, it appears the actors were really at risk) that leaves their “prayer house” incinerated. A security camera captured perps in the arsonist act. But area police are so unsympathetic, they try to pressure David into erasing the footage. When that doesn’t work, a man identifying himself as a cop (Kakha Kintsurashvili) pays Yana a visit.

Shot in a nearly-square aspect ratio, with (like Atlantis) very long takes, Beginning will strike some viewers as too watching-paint-dry, its minimalism overly mannered in both style and somewhat cryptic narrative. Still, it has a purist rigor that is distinctive (somewhat reminiscent of Mexican auteur Carlos Reygadas, an executive producer here), and considerable tension. Its arms-length restraint ultimately heightens the fear that there is nothing local authorities won’t do to intimate this family, with already-unhappy Yana their preferred victim. This is a difficult film arguably more admirable for what it attempts than what it achieves, yet an auspicious debut nonetheless. It is available on streaming service MUBI as of Fri/29. 

The Oscar submission feature from Mother Russia herself this year is from 83-year-old Andrei Konchalovkiy, who made some fine Soviet films (as early as 1965) before emigrating to the West in the 1980s. Though he directed a few interesting English-language films, others were unfortunate (a Jim Belushi vehicle? really?), and the clout needed to snag first-rate projects did not materialize. So it was just as well that he eventually returned to Russian movies, some (like 2014’s The Postman’s White Nights and 2018’s Paradise) as good as anything he’d done.

His current Dear Comrades! is a sharply focused dramatization of a notorious incident in Soviet history, one that was banned from public acknowledgement until the USSR itself collapsed three decades later. 

In 1962, workers at an automotive plant in midsized western city Novocherkassk had increased production quotas forced on them just as the government was (for the first time in years) allowing food prices to rise, creating panic and scarcity. They went on strike, creating a huge embarrassment to the state: It could hardly admit the “workers’ paradise” might actually let workers go hungry. When a furious mob marched to the local Party HQ, which Red Army troops guarded, they were fired upon—a hushed-up massacre estimated to have claimed anywhere from 26 to 80 lives, with many more wounded, others subsequently arrested and/or executed. The bodies were buried secretly, the square where the massacre took place repaved to hide bloodstains on the asphalt.

The B&W Comrades! observes these events from the viewpoint of local Party official Lyudmila (Julia Vysotskaya), who’s so hard-line she’s still making excuses for dear, departed Stalin. But her blind polemical faith is shaken, first when she realizes KGB snipers were hidden above the unruly but unarmed crowd, then upon discovering her own teenage daughter is among those missing post-melee. The shooting itself over by midpoint here, Konchalovsky focuses on this hitherto staunch ideologue’s rapid disillusionment, as her privileged access provides grim insight into just how far those in charge will go to stifle civic unrest—and the authorities’ murderous overreaction to it.

“What am I supposed to believe in, if not Communism?” she asks towards the end, her entire life’s belief system in tatters. Stark and straightforward, Dear Comrades (which like Atlantis is in the Rafael FYC series, then gets released to general On Demand platforms Feb. 5) is a strong work from an octogenarian director still operating at top form.

Konchalovsky was an early colleague and collaborator of Andrei Tarkovsky, who passed away ages ago (in 1986, at just 54), but remains a huge influence on numerous filmmakers both at home and abroad—including some whose work I prefer, such as Alexander Sokurov. The latter also knew Tarkovsky personally, and was particularly impacted by his mentor’s 1974 The Mirror, which BAMPFA adds to its streaming program as of Feb. 5 (more info here). This recently restored film, disliked (and barely released) by Soviet authorities at the time, is now considered by many among the greatest ever made. 

Produced between the metaphysical science-fiction epics of Solaris and Stalker, but conceived before either, it’s a semi-autobiographical wheel of memory in a Proustian vein. Purportedly it took Tarkovsky over 30 editorial passes to arrive at his final mix, combining scenes of childhood and adulthood with historical newsreel footage, soundtrack recitations of poetry (written by his father Arseny), and mystical imagery shot in both color and B&W. 

On a first viewing, The Mirror’s nonlinear structure can be so impenetrable, the whole sometimes seems maddeningly little more than a random assemblage of exquisitely planned shots. But just as someone once called Conrad’s Nostromo “a novel that one cannot read unless one has read it before,” this too is a dense, complex work that grows more accessible and rewarding with repeat exposure. 

But enough of erstwhile Iron Curtain lands and their discontents—our last film, included simply because it’s at least as singular a directorial vision as any of the above, hails from France. Frank Beauvais’ Just Don’t Think I’ll Scream is a collage feature that draws on pieces of the 400-odd films he watched in rural seclusion during a few 2016 months. When not indulging his compulsive “film bulimia,” he mused on the end of his live-in relationship for the last seven years, and eventually planned a return from this isolated village of his upbringing to the teeming life of Paris. (Which will necessitate his moving from a house to a single room, en route liquidating the vast majority of DVDs, books, records et al. he’s hoarded to date.) 

A veteran experimental maker, programmer, and music consultant, Beauvais is heard on the soundtrack throughout, narrating his dyspeptic thoughts on life, art, and society. Then there are musings on the global trends towards terrorism, fascism, and xenophobia he can’t escape even in his bucolic hermitage. He sounds like a bit of a pill, enumerating complaints personal and political in a diaristic monotone. We wonder whether he’s a misanthrope, is just going through a bad patch, is absorbing an accelerated end to civilization, or all the above. But Scream’s form makes this grumbling odyssey towards a fresh start fascinating, for Beauvais has crafted an ingenious visual assemblage of other movies’ spare parts, almost none of which strike a recognition chord. 

Some of that is because he’s drawn towards the obscure, such as lesser-known old Soviet and East German films. Yet when the very long list of films excerpted arrives at the end, you’ll be surprised how many you’ve seen. The trick is that he almost exclusively uses incidental shots of objects, settings, body parts, people with their backs turned or face buried in hands—keeping any personality but his own from becoming the “I,” even briefly.

Guy Maddin created a similar kind of pastiche a few years ago (exclusively from San Francisco-set movies) with The Green Fog, but that was a delightful goof. This project manages to turn found footage into an arresting first-person essay. Just Don’t Think I’ll Scream is available for streaming from some virtual cinemas nationwide (see a list here) as of Jan. 29. 

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