Here at RussiaBlog it is nice to take a break from the latest headlines and often depressing news coming out of Russia to celebrate the great achievements of Russian arts and culture. We have created a new "Culture" category for posts on contemporary Russian film, music, social scene, and religion. And we invite submissions from our readers with expertise on these topics.
While Russian film making is not what it was during the lavishly subsidized Soviet era, one of the best known films of the post-Soviet era is East-West (1999), starring Oleg Menchikov as Alexei. The film is a joint French-Russian-Bulgarian production, and one of the things I enjoyed about it was recognizing the streets of Sofia and the golden domes of the Alexander Nevsky cathedral from my time there in August 2003.
Menchikov is best known to Western audiences for his role as the villanious NKVD officer Dimitri in Nikita Mikhalkov's Burnt by the Sun (1993). While his role in Burnt by the Sun required charm combined with a slow-burning malevolence, in East-West we get to see Menchikov at his best, as flawed hero who ultimately redeems himself by sacrificing his own future for his wife and child's freedom.
The story begins in 1946, when Stalin invites Russian emigres who left after the 1917 Revolution to return to rebuild the Motherland. All is supposedly forgiven, until the moment the exiles step off the plank in Odessa and the shooting and terror starts. If your children don't understand why there was a Cold War or why the Soviet Union was an Evil Empire, showing them this film would be a good place to start.
Alexei is one of the lucky ones; he avoids being sent to a camp and narrowly saves his beautiful French wife Marie (Sendrine Bonnaire) and son because of his skills as a doctor. The NKVD destroys Marie's French passport and puts her family under surveillance, and the State quickly assigns Alexei to work as the physician for a Soviet factory. Thanks to Alexei's sanitation measures, the workers are healthier and he is promoted, but not without having to sleep with his boss and a woman in their building who has been assigned to report on the "foreigners". This betrayal and the oppressiveness of Russia lead Marie to seek solace with a younger man, a gifted swimmer named Sacha (Sergei Bodrov Jr.), who lost his parents to the secret police and was raised by his grandmother, who is also taken away by the chekisti.
Alexei and Marie survive with a lot of help from their fellow tenants in their decrepit apartment building, who work the thriving black market in Kiev. Marie makes contact with a left-wing French actress (Catherine Deneuve) who is touring the USSR. Marie begs her to help her escape to the West. Sacha sees their chance to flee when he wins a swimming competition and travels to the port of Odessa on the Black Sea.
East-West is a powerful testament to how a totalitarian state can seduce even the members of the intellegentsia into going along with it for many years, and to the human yearning for freedom.
As if to put a final Russian twist of tragedy on this uplifting film, the talented young actor Bodrov died in 2002 during an avalanche up in the Caucuses Mountains, while directing his second film project.
NEXT FILM REVIEW: The Ninth Platoon (no English subtitles for this one, so I'll have to watch it with Yuri).