Sunday, July 10, 2016

The End of a Great Era (orig. Конец прекрасной эпохи / Konets prekrasnoy epokhi) [2015]

MPAA (UR would be R)  Fr. Dennis (4+ Stars)

IMDb listing listing* listing* listing* (S. Zelvenskiy) review* (A. Dolin) review*
Rossiyskaya Gazeta (A. Litovchenko) review*
The Hollywood (Y. Zabalyev) review* (A. Belokurova , I. Malashenkov) review*

The End of a Great Era (orig. Конец прекрасной эпохи / Konets prekrasnoy epokhi) [2015] [IMDb] []*[]* (directed and screenplay by Stanislav Govorukhin [IMDb] []*[]*, based on the novel The Compromise (1981) [GR-ENG] [GR-RUS]*[WCat-ENG] [Amzn-ENG] by Sergei Dovlatov [wikip] [GR] [WCat] [Amzn] [IMDb] []*) is an excellent four 2016 Nika Award (Russia's closet equivalent to the Oscars) winning film (including for Best Director) that serves as the third stop of my 2016 Russian Film Tour.

A very smartly filmed period-piece / dramedy of sorts, presented (spot-on perfectly for effect) _entirely_ in high-contrast black-and-white, and set in 1969 (significance of the year becoming important for all kinds of reasons as the film progresses), it tells the story of  "a year in the life" of Andrey Lentulov (played by Ivan Kolesnikov [IMDb] []* []*) a still young, 30-something-or-so, Soviet-era journalist, originally from Leningrad (once and again St. Petersburg) yet for reasons not altogether clear (boredom, perceived greater opportunity / freedom, necessity?) taking a job in not altogether far Tallinn, the capital of the (then) Estonian SSR (once and again Estonia).

Why was he (choosing?) to leave Russia's (then the Soviet Union's) _second city_ (with a population of millions and a cultural cache' commensurate to its size / importance) for basically a "provincial capital" of a then fairly nearby "imperial reservation?"   The Imperialism of Russian life in Tallinn is patently clear throughout the film -- Ethnic Russians seem to hold most of the important positions.  Their ethnic Estonian subordinates appear loyal enough BUT when they turn to speaking Estonian to each other the Russians DON'T HAVE A CLUE what they're saying... Such was "life of the British" in India or Kenya / Rhodesia (or IRELAND for that matter ...) "during the Raj" as well ...

That kind of an admission -- that the Russian dominance of Estonia during the Soviet Era was certainly unjust -- is _in itself_ a remarkably mature and perhaps even brave statement.  (I from / live and write from a country, the United States, that doesn't particularly like to admit its mistakes either ... ;-).

But the whole film becomes a _fascinating_ and to CONTEMPORARY RUSSIA _challenging_ exploration of WHY "1969" could truly be understood as "the end of an era" for (then Soviet) Russia.

To understand "what the era was" and "how/WHY it was ending," the film begins with a montage recalling how the 1960s began in Russia -- WITH GAGARIN.  At the beginning of the 1960s Soviet Union quite literally seemed "at the top of the world."  YET, lest one understand that opening montage as simply a celebration of the Great Soviet Achievements of the time (and let's face it, putting the first satellite and then first human being into space were _great achievements_) EVEN THE OPENING MONTAGE _ENDS_ with an thoroughly _uncomprehending_ Krushchev first scandalized by and then _loudly denouncing_ a famous "modern art exhibition" in Moscow.  So the Khrushchev Thaw was already coming to an end UNDER KHRUSHCHEV.

Fast forward then to "the summer of 1969."  Among the first assignments Andrey is given by his boss, Editor in Chief (goes without saying) "Party man" Genrikh Frantsevich Turonok (played by Boris Kamorzin [IMDb] []*[]*) at his new post at the "Estonian Pravda" (pravda in Russian, of course, meaning "truth," but also the infamous name of the then Soviet Union's Communist Party's _authorative_ newspaper in Moscow) is to help write the front page article _not about_ (AMERICAN) Neil Armstrong WALKING ON THE MOON but instead of a thoroughly _random_ "state visit" by the General Secretary of the Polish People's Republic to Moscow ;-).

Now dear Readers understand, the film shows ALL of Andrey's journalist colleagues watching (live?) coverage of  Neil Armstrong walking on the moon, and them toasting the _human_ achievement of man walking on the moon, SOME perhaps disappointed that it wasn't a Russian walking on the moon, BUT STILL ACKNOWLEDGING, indeed TOASTING (it offered an excuse to drink ;-) the "HUMAN ACHIEVEMENT" OF IT ALL ... and they were being asked TO PRETEND that it "really was no big deal" ... that the again THOROUGHLY RANDOM "state visit" of the Polish General Secretary was _somehow_ "more important."

Many of Andrey's other writing assignments for the paper during that year were similarly absurd: He's given a assignment to write a "puff piece" (most familiar with Soviet Era journalism would know that _most_ domestic stories _were_ "puff pieces") about the recent birth of Tallinn's 400,000th citizen.  (Readers here note that Estonia's capital Tallinn, like most cities between Leningrad and Berlin were thoroughly decimated - and in the case of cities of the Baltic States like Tallinn repeatedly, by both sides - with then a huge exodus of those Estonians who _could flee_ doing so as their country was _definitively_ falling once again under (Soviet) Russian control).  Well, as Andrey sets out to research this story which is to "celebrate" Tallinn's reaching this nearly 25 years-after-the-war benchmark of 400,000 residents ... he finds the story to be "far more complicated" than it would have initially seemed ;-).  The city's 400,000th tovarish was born "out of wedlock" and the father was an Ethiopian exchange student (so "black?" asks Andrey. "Chocolate colored" answers the cautious doctor Andrey's interviewing, unsure if this thoroughly random fact was going to _somehow_ get him into trouble.  And indeed, Andrey's Editor of this Russian language daily in Estonia, becomes worried how this story would not play with HIS higher-ups back in Moscow...)

Later, Andrey's boss sends him on another "puff piece" story to interview a particularly productive Estonian milk-make somewhere in Estonian cow country (she seems to milk cows in a statistically faster fashion than most other milk-maids, _not just_ in the venerable Estonian SSR, but across the whole Soviet Union (Yes folks, THESE were the kind of stories that ROUTINELY made "national news" in the Communist world of the time.  Another great film about the absurdity of that time is the recent Polish film One Way Ticket to the Moon (orig. Bilet na Księżyc) [2013], set incidently in 1969 as well ;-).
Well, to approach this story, Andrey has to find an Estonian translator, who he does find, out there in the nearest sizable town to the kolkhoz with this statistically-remarkable milk-maid.  That translator, named Evi (played by Kyart Tammyapv) [IMDb] []*) a quite attractive, blonde, ethnic Estonian journalist working for a local "youth" paper, confesses to Andrey, that she'd actually _much rather_ research sex than milkmaids (! ;-), explaining to Andrey (needless to say, intrigued ;-) quite sincerely (though yes, she does like sex) that "sex is important, can make a lot of people happy, and yet, most people do it wrong."  (Anyway, they do have "their encounter" and afterwards the 20-something-lovely-Estonian-translator kindly tells him "what he could do better the next time." ;-).   And then, afterwards ... they go to find the milkmaid ;-)

The milk-maid episode ends with Andrey getting his research together, writing the story, only to be informed by his superior that their higher-ups (presumably in Moscow) "already wrote the story anyway" (presumably _without_ any research or anything).  And Andrey's excursion into Estonian cow-country was pretty much a waste, except for perhaps getting a few tips about how to better please a woman "the next time" by a young attractive Estonian 20-something year-old, who actually would have fit _quite well_ and quite _sincerely well_ with her Swedish, German or even American "sisters" who were starting to ask similar questions as well.  The difference is, of course, that her Western counterparts could do so far far more freely than she back in the Soviet Union of the time.

There are ALL KINDS OF SIMILAR STORIES / INCIDENTS in this film.  What did they add up to?  It would seem clear that the message of the film was that the "Great Era" of the 1960s Soviet Union came to an end because the Soviet Union was simply _too closed_ of a society.  Everything had to be approved, an orthodoxy to maintain.   Indeed, throughout the film, there were numerous reference by Andrey's various "higher ups" about "the lessons of Czechoslovakia" (in 1968 the Soviet Union led a Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia to crush the "Prague Spring" liberalization movement there).  But of course, those "higher ups" were drawing _exactly the wrong lessons_.  They kept maintaining that the "problem" of Czechoslovakia was that there had been "too much freedom there" that "once you lose censorship, then ..."

The message of the current film here was that the opposite was true: The curtailment of freedom actually _killed_ innovation and reduced happiness, bringing what could have been a Great Era to an end.

Again, this film won FOUR Nika Awards (Russia's Equivalent of the Oscars) last year in Russia including best director (Stanislav Govorukhin [IMDb] []*[]*) and "discovery of the year" (actor - Ivan Kolesnikov [IMDb] []* []*).

Is there a statement being made about the "more current affairs"?  ONE WOULD HAVE TO BE AN IDIOT NOT TO SEE IT...

But while my comments above may seem needlessly hard / harsh to some Russian Readers (and would be Russian censors --  I actually may have had some experiences with this recently, with regard to my review of Francofonia [2015]) -- if there EVER WAS A FILM that could PROVE TO WESTERNERS that RUSSIA is _capable_ of both self-criticism and CAN SMILE it is this one.

And remember dear Readers here, that I started my (somewhat obsessive ;-) periodic focus [1] [2] [3] on Russian films here in search of films that prove that RUSSIANS CAN SMILE.  Why?  Because WE (honestly!) _DON'T_ SEE THEM HERE -- IN THE WEST.  And honestly, World Peace / the Fate of the World may depend on us seeing becoming able to see Russians as being capable of smiling, just like us, just like all of us (in spite of often, honestly, a very tragic national history ... which we also need to take into account).

So my hat off to the film-makers here:  Ten, twenty, thirty years from now this film will be remembered, on _numerous levels_, as a _great_ one, perhaps even beginning / re-invigorating a NEW era ;-)  Congratulations!

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