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Entries in Russian Film Festival (2)

Sunday
Oct222017

ANDREI KONCHALOVSKY: A RETROSPECTIVE

Born into Russian aristocracy and groomed from an early age for classical music concert halls, Andrei Konchalovsky instead chose the life of a visual artist and was soon accepted into Moscow’s prestigious film academy, VGIK. A meeting with the great director Andrei Tarkovsky (with whom he would co-write the 1966 classic, Andrei Rublev) inspired the twenty-something; at the age of 27, his debut feature The First Teacher (1964) found worldwide acclaim and announced the arrival of a true Soviet cinematic visionary.

To commemorate the great director’s 80th birthday, a celebration of his career will feature at this year’s Russian Resurrection Film Festival; six films, from the early dramas to his brief but brilliant Hollywood journey to his contemporary works, that acknowledge the remarkable contribution to world cinema made by Andrei Konchalovsky…

NEST OF THE GENTRY (1969)
Stars: Irina Kupchenko (pictured, right), Leonid Kulagin, Beata Tyszkiewicz, Vasili Merkuryev.
Plot: A Russian expat returns from Paris to his aristocratic life, mourning his late wife. Charmed by the daughter of his cousin, he is infatuated with the thought of a life spent with her, despite the obstacles such a love must face. But one last hurdle must be overcome – the unexpected reappearance of his betrothed…
Fact: Boasting intricate period detail and richly shot by Georgy Rerberg, Konchalovsky’s adaptation of Ivan Turgenev’s novel was the director’s third film, but only the second released in his homeland. Following The First Teacher, Konchalovsky made the 1966 romantic drama Asiya’s Happiness, only to have it shelved for over 20 years due to the director’s breaching of strict narrative guidelines set by the Soviet authorities. 

UNCLE VANYA (1970)
Stars: Irina Kupchenko, Innokenti Smoktunovsky, Sergei Bondarchuk, Irina Miroshnichenko.
Plot: Dr Serebryakov, a retired academic, and his beautiful young wife Yelena travel to their country estate, to stay with the home’s custodian, the professor’s brother Vanya. Yelena’s allure charms Vanya, as well as the town’s doctor, Astrov; meanwhile Sofya, Serebryakov’s daughter from his first marriage, struggles with her own unsatisfying life. When Serebryakov decides to sell the estate, the complex relationship dynamics are forced into the open.
Fact: Arguably Konchalovsky’s masterwork, his adaption of Chekhov’s play enjoyed international success unprecedented for Soviet cinema. The respected New York Times critic Vincent Canby noted all the performances were “marvellous” and that Chekhov’s text was “remembered by the filmmakers with deep appreciation and taste.” The film was included on the US National Board of Review’s Top Foreign Film List; the director took home San Sebastian's Golden Seashell honour.

RUNAWAY TRAIN (1985)
Stars: Jon Voigt, Eric Roberts, Rebecca De Mornay, John P. Ryan, Kenneth McMillan.
Plot: Manny, a hardened convict and Buck, a fiery younger prisoner, escape from a brutal Alaskan prison in the depths of winter only to find themselves on an out-of-control train with a female railway worker, while being pursued by the vengeful head of jail security.
Fact: Roger Ebert wrote of Konchalovsky’s action epic in the same sentence as The African Queen, Stagecoach and The Seven Samurai, stating “great adventures are great because they happen to people we care about.” Adapted from an original script by Akira Kurosawa, this brutal yet beautiful survival story earned three Oscar nominations (Lead and Supporting Actor categories, as well as for Henry Richardson’s editing); scored Voigt a Golden Globe for Best Actor; and, earned Konchalovsky a Palme d’Or nomination at Cannes. (Pictured, above; Voigt, left, and Roberts)

  

TANGO & CASH (1989)
Stars: Sylvester Stallone, Kurt Russell, Teri Hatcher, Jack Palance.
Plot: Two rival LAPD narcotic detectives are paired in an effort to bring down a Californian drug kingpin, only to find themselves framed and sent to maximum security prison. From inside, they need to clear their names, nail the villain and stay alive while everyone around them wants them dead.
Fact: The set of Konchalovsky’s most broadly commercial film was a hotbed of creative differences, studio interference and colliding egos, making it all the more remarkable that Tango & Cash has emerged as one of the more memorable and cherished ‘buddy cop’ action comedies of the 1980s. With the bulk of principal photography in the can, the Russian proposed an edit that was slightly more serious in tone than first envisioned. That was the final straw for producer Jon Peters and Warner Bros, who took control of the film and employed 2nd unit helmer Peter McDonald (Rambo III), gun-for-hire Albert Magnoli (Purple Rain) and Australian editor Stuart Baird (Executive Decision) to lighten the mood. 

GLOSS (2007)
Stars: Yuliya Vysotskaya (pictured, right), Irina Rozanova, Aleksandr Domogarov.
Plot: Pretty young thing Galya leaves her provincial upbringing behind to make it big in the world of high fashion super-modelling. But her ambitious resolve is tested when setback after cruel setback chip away at her dreams.
Facts: As Andrei Konchalovsky neared 70, he turned his eye towards Moscow’s faux upper-class and shallow fashion industry sector with Gloss, one of his most contemporary and relevant works. A biting satire that has been labelled a deeper, darker version of the Anne Hathaway/Meryl Streep hit The Devil Wears Prada, Gloss didn’t sit well with all the critics but proved a domestic hit. It also showed the director at his most playful, boldly employing some surreal touches that his old mentor would have appreciated and exhibiting a buoyancy in his filmmaking, even when the subject matter gets a little grim.

PARADISE (2016)
Stars: Yuliya Vysotskaya, Peter Kurth, Viktor Sukhorukov
Plot: Described by The Hollywood Reporter as “ a somber and ambitious tale of love and loss set during Europe’s most hellish mid-century days”, Paradise track the story of three intertwined lives – Olga, a Russian noblewoman arrested for housing two Jewish children; Jules, a rotund policeman drawn to Olga’s tatus, who makes demands upon Olga in exchange for leniency; and, Helmut, an aristocratic old-flame whose position of power within Olga’s concentration camp allows her hope of escape.
Fact: Shortlisted to the final nine for the 2016 Foreign Film Oscar, Paradise represents one of the crowning achievements in Konchalovsky’s remarkable career. The mix of rich romanticism, historical theorising and humanistic horror, the fearless filmmaker once again rattled a few critical sensibilities but would wow international festival audiences. Stunningly lensed by longtime collaborator Aleksandr Simonov, the director’s 22nd feature won the Best Film Golden Eagle at the 2016 Russian Film Awards, as well as trophies at Gijón, Munich and Venice, whose judges honoured Andrei Konchalovsky with the Silver Lion for Best Director.

The 2017 RUSSIAN RESURRECTION FILM FESTIVAL launches October 26 in Sydney with other capital cities to follow. For ticket and session details check the event’s official website.

Tuesday
May092017

RUSSIAN FEST DIRECTOR RECALLS BOLSHOI FILM PREMIERE

The Moscow premiere of director Valery Todorovsky’s latest film, The Bolshoi, quickly became the hottest event ticket on the 2017 Russian film calendar. On April 17, 1400 of Moscow’s most esteemed dignitaries sat enthralled as the film unfurled upon the grandest of stages, that of the magnificent Bolshoi Theatre itself. For only the second time in the venue’s 237 year history, cinema took centre stage, albeit to tell the fairy-tale story of a ballerina’s rise to stardom; Todorovsky’s shoot had been the first allowed to film within the walls of The Bolshoi Theatre. In the audience that night was Nicholas Maksymow, the Festival Director of the Russian Resurrection Film Festival, Australia's prestigious annual showcase of Russian film culture. SCREEN-SPACE welcomes Nicholas as guest columnist, as he recalls that Moscow night when modern cinema met centuries-old tradition…

Moscow’s Bolshoi Theatre houses one of the world’s oldest and most acclaimed ballet and opera companies. Designed by architect Joseph Bové, it’s opening in 1825 gained world-wide recognition and continues to do so to the present day. The Bolshoi is the latest offering from renowned Russian director Valery Todorovsky (The Lover, My Stepbrother Frankenstein, Hipsters) and provides not only a rare glimpse inside the majestic venue, but also examines the pure artistry of classical ballet. (Pictured, above: Maksymow, left, with director Valery Todorovsky at The Bolshoi Theatre)

Bolshoi is a trademarked brand and the producers needed to pre-screen the film for approval by the Theatre's board to use the title. As Todorovsky himself has said, the name Bolshoi (from the Russian for ‘grand’) not only represents classical ballet, it is synonymous with Russian classical ballet itself. (Pictured, right; lead actress Magarita Simonova in The Bolshoi

Not since the 1925 premiere of Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin has The Bolshoi Theatre served as a grand movie palace. Attending the premiere of Todorovsky’s latest were the Russian Minister of Culture, Vladimir Medinsky, the Deputy Prime Minister, Olga Golodets, and such Russian A-listers as actor/director Fyodr Bondarchuk and Chelsea Football Club owner, Roman Abramovich.

Never in history has the actual stage been used for a film; the crew was given six days to film on the historical dance floor, an impressive achievement given the intricate and grand art form that is classical ballet. Seeing the dancers perform on the renowned stage with such grace and watching it in an actual ballet theatre made it very easy to forget one was watching a movie and not live ballet!

Todorovsky’s narrative is a simple story of ballet dancers striving to be selected for the Bolshoi Theatre Company that evolves into a captivating coming-of-age journey. Our protagonist is Julia Olshanskaya, played as a youngster by Katya Mainulina, a reserve for Russia’s Olympic Team in Rhythmic Gymnastics, before maturing into Margarita Simonova, a dancer with Warsaw’s Grand Theatre. The similarity between the two girls was striking in terms of their physical traits, appearance and behaviour.

Julia is a provincial girl from a poor family who dances on the streets of her mining town. Her big break comes when former ballet dancer Pototsky (Aleksandr Domogarov) sees potential in the starlet and arranges an audition at The Moscow State Academy of Choreography. Julia’s new life is one of exhilarating highs and depressing lows, as she strives to overcome the difficulties placed in front of her by teachers with their own personal struggles. Life and career choices present a challenge to our ballerina, with her only ally in this maze being her mentor Beletskaya (played wonderfully by an old master of stage and screen, Alisa Frendlich), who instils an inspiring willingness in her student to succeed but also prove she has talent.

The film is unique in how it deviates from the increasingly common formula of a force-fed story that feels predictable. Yes, we do have the perfected scenes of rich kids versus poor kids, kids with real talent versus kids with mothers who think they can buy their way to fame. If such elements seem familiar, Todorovsky’s storytelling is not. These scenes are intertwined with a narrative of the past and the present, which ultimately helps viewers engage with the characters on screen.

The exploration of complex themes and issues, such as the struggle of dementia, is subtle and powerful.  These scenes are humorous, yet touchingly sad; anyone who has a family member suffering from this cruel condition will recognize the authenticity of these scenes. Frendlich captures here character’s suffering brilliantly; her portrayal could have been taken from a real-life aged care facility and edited straight into the film. (Pictured, left; The Bolshoi director Valery Todorovsky)

Aside from a core cast of professional actors, Todorovsky chose to assemble 70 professional ballet dancers and children studying ballet to play the principal characters in the film, a decision that surprisingly pays off. Todorovsky described the process of finding non-actors as the most difficult casting audition of his life.  "It was necessary to first find professional ballet dancers who could play dramatic roles,” he told the premiere audience. “Then we had to find those who would play the characters in childhood. We searched everywhere, visited every city in which there is a ballet school and theatre, so as to ensure the best got to the audition and to achieve a perfect match.” 

Moving and entertaining, The Bolshoi is a majestic treasure that succeeds on the big screen. In its portrayal of young lives chasing the dreams a ballet academy offers, it exhibits an empathy that is lacking in many films of today. It allows the audience to feel a part of academy life, just as it does for the dancers in the film. Valery Todorovsky has a knack for separating the significant moments in the lives of his characters when growth, obstacles and talent are all juxtaposed.  We saw this in Vice (2007), a fictional expose of youth caught in the underworld of drugs and crime, and more recently in the lively and colourful musical, Hipsters (2008). (Pictured, right; a scene from The Bolshoi)

No more fitting score than the music of renowned Russian composer Tchaikovsky could have been chosen to complement the dance action. The director beautifully sums up the film’s score as being reflective of the different phases of the lives of his characters.“Childhood is the Nutcracker, youth is Sleeping Beauty and adulthood, Swan Lake,” says Valery Todorovsky. “Tchaikovsky was not chosen by me, he was chosen by the Russian Ballet.”

Nicholas Maksymow
Festival Director, RUSSIAN RESURRECTION FILM FESTIVAL.

The Bolshoi will be released theatrically in Russia on 11 May 2017 and will premiere in Australia and New Zealand as part of the Russian Resurrection Film Festival from 26 October 2017.