The brothers Lumiére gave Imperial Russia its earliest taste of cinema in 1896, and less than two weeks later, one of their cameramen had shot the first film on Moscow soil: the Kremlin coronation of Nicholas II. However, a far more imperative cultural milestone to remember—according to the Russian Ministry of Culture, at least—is 1908, when Russia produced its first-ever narrative, Sten’ka Razin, adapted from a traditional folk ballad about the Cossack leader. Timed with the ministry’s centennial salute to its motion-picture industry (and specifically to the diverse contributions of Mosfilm, the region’s oldest, biggest, and most prolific studio), the Film Society of Lincoln Center offers a three-week sampling of noteworthy Russian cinema. Expect film-school staples like The Battleship Potemkin and The Cranes Are Flying, as well as Soviet comedies and musicals, special-effects extravaganzas, Cold War dramas, a perestroika-era gem, contemporary stand-outs (including a special screening of Aleksander Sokurov’s wartime allegory and NYFF selection Alexandra)—and, yes, the requisite Andrei Tarkovsky picture.
One of the rarest to be screened is Aleksandr Medvedkin’s 1938 Stalinist rom-com The New Moscow, a utopian chest-puffer concerning a dreamy Siberian country boy who travels to the capital with his plucky grandma to present a futuristic “living model” of the modernized city. Rife with sight gags, patriotic musical numbers, a giddy love triangle, and visual ingenuity (especially considering the era’s limitations: rear-screen projection, matte cut-outs, stop-motion animation), the film is as playful as a Marx Brothers movie—albeit one that only stars Zeppo—but please, no Marxism jokes.
More universally renowned, Vladimir Motyl’s 1969 crowd-pleaser White Sun of the Desert is an action-heavy “eastern” in which demobilized Red Army soldier Sukhov (Anatoly Kuznetsov), walking home to his wife through the deserts of Turkmenistan, ends up protecting a harem of women from counterrevolutionary bandit Black Abdullah and his murderous crew. Rumored to be required viewing by all cosmonauts before shooting into space, it’s easy to see how this military adventure has become a cult favorite, with its oddball wit and an elegant simplicity to what was likely underfunded stunt work.
Tops among the four new Russian films scheduled is the U.S. premiere of Travelling With Pets, a rhythmically hushed tale of female empowerment, starring Kseniya Kutepova as a meager, neglected wife who breaks free of her subservience after her husband/master keels over dead. Now home alone, she rewards herself by acting on most every whim, whether it be trading the cow for a goat, buying a mirror to finally see her naked body, or using a stranger for sex—and, hell, why not buy that flat-screen TV? Underscored in its pregnant pauses by the passing of a train, director Vera Storozheva’s filmmaking is wonderfully assured, but her movie rests on Kutepova’s performance. Her relaxed face conveys a world-weariness and newfound wonderment without ever breaking deadpan.