Where to Aim, When to Shoot

Film as a weapon in a time of war: Minneapolis/St. Paul International Film Festival coverage.

Cinema is a refractive mirror of history, and certainly the country's war-ridden existence has inspired many stories onscreen. World War II--regarded in Russia as the Great Patriotic War--has had a profound influence. In fact, World War II films aren't categorized as war films in Russia: They are a genre unto themselves. Russia's film industry is mostly devoid of international distribution, but the recent World War II-era drama Kukushka (The Cuckoo) seems set to buck the trend. The film, by St. Petersburg-based director Alexander Rogozhkin, has been picked up for distribution to American art-house theaters by Sony Pictures Classics. (It screens at Oak Street Cinema on Friday, April 11 at 9:45 p.m. as part of the Minneapolis/St. Paul festival.) Rogozhkin has achieved a level of recognition on the world festival circuit with his previous works, the comedy Peculiarities of the National Hunt and the Chechen War drama Checkpoint.

Peculiarities, produced at Lenfilm Studios in 1994 during a low point for the studio, was a box office success in Russia, spawning two sequels, several spinoffs, and even a brand of vodka named after Kuzmich, the boozing outdoorsman (played by Viktor Bychkov) who befriends a young Finnish man coming to Russia to experience a real Russian hunt. Work on the film cemented the friendship between Bychkov and Finnish actor Ville Haapasalo, who went from relative obscurity to becoming household names in their respective countries. Having appeared together in a stage adaptation of Dostoevsky's Diary of a Madman, Haapasalo and Bychkov asked Rogozhkin to write a stage play for three people, something in which they could appear together. Rogozhkin accepted the challenge, and the screenplay for The Cuckoo was the result.

Having studied history in college, Rogozhkin was intrigued by the Continuation War, a protraction of the Russo-Finnish Winter War and part of the greater World War II conflict. Unaware of the conflict's end on September 4, 1944, one Soviet Army officer and one Finnish sniper are imprisoned in the wilderness for unexplained offenses by their respective armies--the Soviets and the German SS. They escape through a mix of effort and circumstance, and end up in the hut of a lonely but spirited Saami woman who doesn't take sides, but rather takes care of--and comes to love--them both. Rogozhkin wanted to go beyond the story of three people converging in the hinterlands of war, to create a situation in which three people speak three different languages, but come to understand one another in other ways.

Particularly in terms of its international release, the film has a lot riding on the appeal of Bychkov and Haapasalo. But Rogozhkin is confident. "These are two actors with very different psycho-physical aspects," he proclaimed recently. "But they do have a peculiar chemistry."

An inimitable rapport is also achieved by Oleg Yankovsky and Sergei Garmash in Valery Todorovsky's new psychological drama The Lover (Oak Street, Tuesday, April 8 at 7:15 p.m.). Using a simple but effective script by Gennady Ostrovsky, the film paints a picture of two very different men--linguistics professor Dmitry (Yankovsky) and retired army officer Ivan (Garmash)--who love the same woman. Dmitry, the woman's husband, tries his best to come to terms with the anger he feels upon learning of the affair his wife had been having with Ivan, which spanned their entire 15-year marriage. Yankovsky selects his projects with care: He earlier graced the screen with his portrayal of the sensitive, homesick, and resolute Gorchakov in Tarkovsky's Nostalghia.

"Right away," Yankovsky told me on the set of The Lover, "my attention was drawn to the fact that there are no accidental things in this picture. Everything is important and thought out to the limit. Behind every episode, there is the state of [Dmitry's] soul, his thoughts and emotional experiences."

The emotional experience of war is examined in The War (Crown Theatres Block E 15, Sunday, April 13 at 5:00 p.m.; and Oak Street, Tuesday, April 15 at 7:15 p.m.), which finds director Alexei Balabanov turning from the gangster realism of the Brother films to the topical subject of Chechnya. Stylish and deceptively simple, The War is a Russian revenge fantasy in which a soldier (Alexei Chadov) who had been imprisoned as a slave in Chechnya comes back to decimate his former captors along with a fellow former captive--a disgruntled British actor (Ian Kelly) who's attempting to free his girlfriend, still held by the Chechens. The Brit undergoes a stunning transformation from a cowardly civilian, somewhat ridiculously whining about the violation of his "human rights" in captivity, to a high-tech mercenary-cum-documentary filmmaker (parallels between shooting a film and shooting a weapon are drawn in a couple of scenes) who chronicles his soldier mate's Rambo-like heroics and engages in some of his own. In terms of the deeper issues surrounding Chechnya and the festering wound it has been for Russia, The War only scratches the surface. But it does provide plenty of action.

"You can't shoot really smart cinema at all," posits Balabanov. "As Andrzej Wajda said, 'A director must be a bit stupid, because film directing as a profession is akin to the profession of translator--there are a lot more nuances in the language of literature than there are in film.' So, in order to be understood, one must simply shoot good films."

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