The gentle strains of Nina Simone singing “Wild Is the Wind” that open Aleksey Uchitel’s St. Petersburg–set The Stroll may have felt romantic, maybe even cautiously hopeful, back in 2003. At the time, Russia still seemed like it was in a period of possibility. The Wild West ethos of the Boris Yeltsin–dominated Nineties, a period of both democratic experimentation and existential uncertainty, of high-flying profligacy and economic ruin, had seemingly come to an end with the appointment of a dour but allegedly competent technocrat named Vladimir Putin as president on December 31, 1999, the eve of a new millennium. By 2003, Putin had already begun to consolidate his power through a variety of legal and extra-legal means, but the country was still coasting, it seemed, on the energies unleashed (in ways not always positive) by the end of Communism and the fall of the Soviet empire.
It was, by all accounts, an intensely chaotic time. But watching the opening of Uchitel’s film in 2018, one might miss the chaos. Today, the overwhelming melancholy of Simone’s song hits hard, like a funereal lament for what might have been. Through the prism of time, what hope there once was feels delusional, even pathetic.
Such unsettling reflections may hit you a few times over the course of the Museum of the Moving Image’s monthlong series “Putin’s Russia: A 21st Century Film Mosaic,” which begins today and runs through July 15. The films — more than thirty of them, encompassing shorts, features, narratives, and documentaries — cover a range of styles, from twisted sci-fi epics to gritty dramas of urgency and despair. But together, they tell the story of a society that entered a new century in a flush of anything-goes unruliness, only to see the bonds of community dissolve amid intolerance, despotism, and murder. I’ve rarely seen a film series that feels like its own tragic narrative: To watch these movies is to live through a world becoming disconnected from itself.
Maybe we can even sense the seeds of that collapse in The Stroll itself, which follows, in vérité fashion, a lovesick, eager young man and a buoyant, impulsive young woman who meet on the street and then proceed to fall in and out of love and everything in between as they walk through the bustling city. Along the way, a third man — stronger, sturdier, quieter — joins them, and a wild romantic triangle seems to develop, with the girl drifting between the comforting confidence of one suitor and the needy boisterousness of the other.
Uchitel’s style is purposefully rough. In addition to the handheld camerawork, scenes develop in uninterrupted, improvisatory, occasionally fourth wall–breaking fashion. The sound doesn’t always match the action; bystanders constantly stare into the camera. The disorienting cinematography, unmoored narrative, and ever-shifting relationships reflect a world where anything seems possible, one that can’t seem to contain the breadth of all the emotions the characters are feeling. The movie feels like a dam bursting. But eventually, the turmoil comes to collect. The romantic rivalry threatens to become violent, and the girl’s capriciousness starts to feel downright neurotic. One final twist at the end, set in a colorful bowling alley, suggests that those exciting possibilities were illusory all along.
It’s noteworthy how many of these films feel like road movies, or nightmarish travelogues. Characters search for coherence, or meaning, or one another, and are faced with fragmentation and rejection. In Sergei Loznitsa’s My Joy (2010) and A Gentle Creature (2017), these journeys start off simply enough, but soon take detours into dreamlike visions, history, and surreal ellipses. In the former, a truck driver transporting a shipment of flour finds himself face-to-face with his own capacity for both transcendence and violence in a world that threatens to strip him of everything, even his identity. In the latter, an unnamed woman travels to a Siberian town to inquire as to why the package she mailed to her prisoner husband never got to him. There, she finds herself rejected at every turn, plunged deeper into a corrosive bureaucracy, with her only lifelines sending her off into more dangerous, at times comically bizarre directions. The time period is uncertain: Modern-day elements are woven into Soviet-era imagery. But one suspects that the story doesn’t so much take place outside of time as it takes place within all time.
In 2013’s Blood, directed by Alina Rudnitskaya — one of the great documentarians of our time, and a director with four remarkable films in this retrospective — we follow a group of female nurses as they travel through Russia’s northwestern reaches, drawing blood from townspeople, many of whom make these donations simply to earn a few much-needed rubles. Blood is a film of literal collapse: Over and over again, the donors — malnourished, impoverished, ill — faint as their blood is withdrawn. These communities, such as they are, seem to be at the end of their rope. By contrast, the nurses themselves remain close; Rudnitskaya regularly shows them cutting loose at night, getting blitzed, dancing, hooking up with random men. As they travel through a country that seems ever more forbidding and unforgiving, their own sense of belonging becomes stronger.
In Antoine Cattin and Pavel Kostomarov’s documentary Mother (2007), a middle-aged dairy worker, fleeing abuse, desperately tries to hold her family of nine together in the forsaken countryside. Faced with poverty and rejection at every turn, and saddled with children who are starving, Lyuba is a figure of both resolute dignity and stark honesty: She speaks of the dreams she once had, and of how all her other ambitions were dashed over the years. And yet she demonstrates a strange optimism, an articulate, reflective self-knowledge. At times, we might even mistake her for a metaphor for the country itself — but that would be unfair to the specificity and urgency of her portrayal. She is, sadly, all too real.
The intimacy that develops amid desolation is also at the heart of Polish director Michal Marczak’s At the Edge of Russia (2010), a mesmerizing look at life in a tiny, ramshackle military encampment along the country’s snowbound Arctic border. There, a fresh-faced young recruit is trained to survive in the freezing weather — at one point, he has to spend two nights inside a hole in the ice — while also encouraged to bond with the older soldiers around him. These rough men still carry vestiges of their culture within them: They sing folk tunes, quote Lermontov and Lope de Vega poems, and joke around affectionately. But madness and violence are not far. Late in the film, one officer begins to ruminate on his wife’s infidelity, and what he intends to do to her when he returns.
Indeed, the possibility of violence hovers over many of these films. In Aleksei German’s posthumously completed, masterfully meandering Hard to Be a God (2013), it’s more than just a possibility. Set on another planet — one trapped in perpetual medieval gloom — German’s film offers a relentless orgy of savagery and gore, with intellectuals and scientists and other sages being slaughtered in pogroms. The film, based on a 1964 novel by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, was in the works for more than fifteen years; as such, it’s not so much about Putin’s Russia as it is about the violence, intolerance, and madness ever-present in the human soul — forces that find their expression through the brutality of unchecked power. Hard to Be a God effectively presents us with an alternate reality where the Renaissance never happened, where it was scuttled through unspeakable brutality — and then it dares us to draw conclusions about our own reality.
In a somewhat more naturalistic vein, Yuri Bykov’s The Fool (2014) depicts a community’s breakdown in literal fashion. A crack appears through the middle of a massive tenement building, threatening to bring the whole crowded edifice down. Bykov then follows how the discovery of this crack percolates through the political and criminal sphere, with everyone covering asses, pointing fingers, and looking for ways to sweep everything under the rug. Meanwhile, a young plumber’s apprentice struggles to do the right thing, warning authorities and evacuating the residents. The film’s most disturbing moment comes at the end, with the building dwellers’ harrowing reaction to having their lives saved, suggesting a society beyond redemption. In that sense, The Fool might be one of the most cynical pictures I’ve ever seen.
Which is saying a lot, because this series also includes two Andrei Zvyagintsev films. In Leviathan (2014), we find ourselves yet again in a desolate corner of Russia — this time an empty coastal town on the edge of the Barents Sea, a landscape dotted with decaying boats and beached, rotting whales. A mechanic and his family, aided by a big-city lawyer, do battle against a corrupt mayor who wants them off their land. But Zvyagintsev is as interested in the conflict between spirituality and pragmatism as he is in that between the individual and the state. His film seems to ask at times if a lone individual can survive in Putin’s Russia.
The director’s follow-up, Loveless (2017), seems to offer one answer to that question. A troubled young boy from a family that doesn’t want him goes missing during the height of Russia’s conflict with Ukraine. His self-absorbed parents, who are in the midst of separating, mount a search for their son, but get little help from the police or any other institutions. As the parents keep looking, Zvyagintsev takes us through apartment blocks, dense forests, and other abandoned spaces — including a giant Soviet-era complex that now lies in ruins — presenting us with a vast, cold world that dwarfs ordinary humans. Within this emptiness, people strive for belonging, and the parents’ new relationships seem rather pointed. The father attaches himself to a young woman from a traditionalist family, while the mother shacks up with a wealthy businessman. Money and morality, the emotional and existential currencies of the new Russia.
Even so, the lesson of these films is not so much that Russia went from happy to hopeless within a couple of decades; that would be inaccurate, and simplistic. The sense that an all-consuming darkness is never far, held tenuously at bay by an increasingly frayed sense of community, tolerance, and good will, is perhaps the defining tension of the 21st century so far, pretty much all over the world. These films will still feel terrifyingly relevant to a viewer who knows nothing about Russia. I said earlier that experiencing this series is like watching a tragedy unfold; that tragedy is, ultimately, our own.
Museum of the Moving Image
June 15–July 15