Saturday, December 27, 2014

The Geographer Drank His Globe Away (orig. Географ Глобус Пропил) [2013]

MPAA (UR would be R) (4/5 Stars) (7.2/10) (7.6/10)  Fr. Dennis (4+ Stars)

IMDb listing listing* listing* listing* (B. Milovidov) review* (T. Fedotova) review* (А. Mazhaev) review* (A. Enseev) review* (A. Belokurova) review*

The Geographer Drank His Globe Away (orig. Географ Глобус Пропил) [2013] [IMDb] []* []*[]* (directed and screenplay cowritten by Aleksandr Veledinskiy [IMDb] []* []*[]* [ru.wikip]* along with Rauf Kubayev [IMDb] []*[]* and Valeriy Todorovskiy [IMDb] []* []* based on the novel [GR]* [ru.wikip]* by Alexei V. Ivanov [en.wikip] [ru.wikip]* [IMDb]) is an EXCELLENT RUSSIAN FILM which won five 2014 Nika Awards (Russia's equivalent of the Oscars) [IMDb] [en.wikip] including for best picture, best director, best actor and best actress and was nominated for three others.

The film played at the 2013 New York Russian Film Week.  Since contemporary Russian films rarely play in Chicago, and those that do IMHO often play into the propagandistic interests of BOTH Putin's current government AND that of the West (both seem to WANT Russia to appear re-enamored or even obsessed with bombastic, often highly allegorical Soviet Era even Stalinistic aesthetics), I have considered for a while now to look-up and review the films shown at that Festival in New York.  While reading Peter Pomerantsev's perhaps quite excellent and certainly quite damning book Nothing is Real and Everything is Possible: The Surreal Heart of the New Russia (2014) (neither I nor most Americans honestly have an alternate frame of reference to be able to argue with him), I found this "perhaps one sunny day" project perhaps a bit more urgent.  (Pomerantsev was rather prominently featured in an interview on the PBS Newshour [1] [2] recently, so his book will probably carry a fair amount of weight among "the people who actually make decisions" in the U.S. and by extension in the West).  

My sense is that Pomerantsev is probably largely on target (my parents were Czechoslovakian immigrants, after all, who fled that country to the U.S. during the Communist Era...).  However, I do honestly believe that the cause of "better understanding between peoples/nations" and FRANKLY EVEN THE CAUSE OF WORLD PEACE would be greatly served if Americans (and Westerners in general) were to come to realize that Russians are people who ALSO deal with "day to day" problems AND _at least at times_ SMILE.  Since a number of the films shown at the 2013 New York Russian Film Week were COMEDIES or otherwise _little_ "average Joe dramas" I thought that giving publicity to some of these films COULD HELP CHANGE ATTITUDES and AGAIN FRANKLY HELP TO EITHER PREVENT ANOTHER COLD WAR OR AT LEAST MAKE IT LESS COLD.

So with this goal in mind, I set-off to first find and then review a representative portion of the films shown at that already admittedly small 2013 New York Russian Film Festival.  And the first film that I saw of the series was this one, the 5 Nika Award winning personalist drama called The Geographer Drank His Globe Away (orig. Географ Глобус Пропил) [2013] [IMDb] []* []*[]*.

The story is set in and around the industrial city of Perm [en.wikip] [ru.wikip]* near the European side foothills of the Ural Mountains [en.wikip] [ru.wikip]* on the banks of the picturesque Kama River [en.wikip] [ru.wikip]* a major tributary of the Volga [en.wikip] [ru.wikip]* (Perm's American "sister city" is quite interestingly/evocatively Louisville, Kentucky, itself located a little downriver from the western foothills of the Appalachian Mountains on the banks of Ohio River a major tributary to the Mississippi).  The film's about a "washed-up" late-30 something / early 40-something former university teacher named Viktor Slushkin (played award-worthily in often funny yet ever-understated fashion by Konstantin Khabenskiy [IMDb] []* []*: Readers think here of Liam Neeson playing Jeff Bridges' role in The Big Lebowski [1998] ;-).

Never having finished his PhD (in Biology), perhaps/probably because of drinking (though the drinking could have been both a cause and an effect of his downward slide), he's spent the better part of the last 10 years drifting through (and losing) increasingly pitiable jobs across much of the region, finally bringing him home to Perm [en.wikip] [ru.wikip]* where he had grown-up.  There upon his return he ends-up landing a job as a "Geography teacher" at the local high school (secondary school).  "Biology, Geography, it's all the same," declares the _male_ 'director of the school' while the (probably far more competent than both of them) _female_ assistant director/principal clenches her teeth, roles her eyes and responds as calmly as she can: "Well, YOU are the Director (Principal) after all ..."

Having "landed a job" that he's _not_ completely embarrassed about, Victor (actually kind of an ironic name ... evoking "victory") can "complete the journey home" and return to his wife and kid (shades of The Odyssey or even James Joyce's Ulysses).  His wife Nadya (her name actually meaning "hope" played again with magnificent _disappointment_ by Elena Lyadova [IMDb] []* []*) a former (university) student of his, who he had "bagged" (and "knocked-up" ... they have said 8 to 10 year old girl together) when he was still "a catch" ... now, of course, hates him.  The three have a random apartment in a random 10-20 story tenement building (though at least it "has a nice view, facing the river...") somewhere in town and the first words of Nadya in the movie is that it's embarrassing that they still don't have a car.

Spotting Victor smoking a cigarette on his balcony (while his wife's putting out the laundry to dry ...)  contemplating the river or simply just enjoying a brief moment of peace, his best friend Butkin (played with cheerful cluelessness/innocence by Aleksandr Robak [IMDb] []* []*) calls him up on his cell phone.  Victor answering, Butkin cheerfully tells him "Look toward your left!" Victor of course looks the wrong way, "No your other left!"  Turning the right way, Victor sees a little roundish figure of a man standing on a balcony a few floors _lower_ of another apartment of another random tenement building happily waving toward him calling out, loudly, both over the phone and across the snow covered green: "Victor, it's good to see you back!  When'd you come home?"

And soon, Butkin's over at Victor's with a flower for the wife/family and a bottle of who-knows-what to share with Victor, et al, and Nadya, just rolls her eyes wondering "Will the newly returned joys never cease ..." ;-).


Okay, Victor knows as much about "geography" as he can remember from WHEN HE WAS A BORED, UNMOTIVATED (or more positively "CARE-FREE") HIGH SCHOOL STUDENT ... AND ... WHAT SUBSEQUENT LIFE EXPERIENCE HAS TAUGHT HIM.  So he's SIMULTANEOUSLY a TERRIBLE (GEOGRAPHY) TEACHER ... and actually ... a pretty good one.

Of his largely unmotivated class, two students become key: Ovechkin (Ilya Ilinyh [IMDb] []* []*... there's actually a famous NHL playing Russian hockey player now named Ovechkin ;-) who could have been Viktor (Slushkin) when he was 16 years old and more problematically Masha (played again wonderfully with wide-eyed teenage hormone-driven sincerity by Anfisa Chernykh [IMDb] []* []*) who "falls in love with him" and who if he would have still been 16 years old, he probably would have loved to have fallen-in-love with as well.  But alas, Viktor (Slushkin)'s some 40 years old, with a wife who he's failed and kid who he loves and doesn't want to fail as well.

So how to _NAVIGATE_ this lovely, sad, very human mess of a life? 

After his wife tells him to "find a mistress" because she honestly doesn't feel anything for him any more, it is HE actually who lets her enter into a fling (and all concerned hope something more ...) with his best friend Butkin (His ever-cheerfulness does eventually melt Nadya's scowl into a smile).  For his part, Viktor does initially pursue a "hot German teacher" Kira (played by Evgenia Brik [IMDb] []* []*).  But when he does arrive at a point where he really could succeed, he starts to have second thoughts.  "So you're going to become a monk?" Kira asks him.  "No, not all the saints were monks," never particularly or certainly explicitly religious he responds.  He's just honestly apparently come to the realization that this wasn't right (even though he was actually happy to see his wife finally _somewhat happy_, if not with him, then at least with his happier-go-lucky best friend).

And with his under-motivated students he finally makes a deal:  He would take those who "ace" their final exam on a several day rafting trip down the Kama River (upstream from town) to prove to them that "geography can be fun."  That sets up a very nice and very scenically drop-dead beautiful last 45 minutes of the film.

What of the 16 year old, wide-eyed, not knowing what she's doing, but "in love" (with him) Masha?  Well, PERHAPS MILD SPOILER ALERT, Viktor manages to bring her down to reality.  When ON THE RAFTING TRIP she professes her love to him: "I can't live without you," as a 40 year old (who's actually gone down this path before, albeit with a college student, his wife, who he's subsequently profoundly failed / disappointed) he responds: "OH PLEASE, I'm NOT with DYING FOR.  And you're NOT worth GOING TO JAIL for."  And yes, she's "crest fallen" but ... of course, "she gets over it" ;-)


I began calling the film a "personalist" film.  It's a term that may seem strange to many American ears.  But I chose it purposefully here.  This is because PERSONALISM was very much what this film was about -- the capacity of an individual PERSON to make (good and bad) moral decisions.  Personalism was very much at the center of Pope John Paul II's (now St. John Paul II's) theology (his first book was called "The Acting Person") and this philosophy / theology was certainly informed by the philosophical / theological currents of his part of the world and HIS philosophy/theology in turn has influenced said philosophical / theological currents of his part the world as well.  (While Poles and Russians may not much like each other, they DO read and watch each other's stuff ;-).  So I DON'T THINK the "personalism" in the John Paul II-ian sense was that much of an accident here.   Even if the Russian writer of the book or Russian director of the movie never actually read any of John Paul II's writings, the philosophy / theology of his writings would be very much "in the religious / philosophical environment" of the entire region. 

In any case, this was really an excellent (and perhaps to Westerners initially surprising) Russian film that is WORTHY of "looking up."  Great job folks, honestly great job!

* Reasonably good (sense) translations of non-English webpages can be found by viewing them through Google's Chrome browser. 

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