Generation P - poster artDirector Victor Ginzburg‘s feature film debut, a film adaptation of one of Russia’s modern literary masterpieces, Generation P by Victor Pelevin, arrives in South Florida this weekend for an exclusive theatrical run. It opens exclusively in the City of Aventura, and fittingly in one of South Florida’s apexes of consumerism, the Aventura Mall (once made famous by a spending spree by Michael Jackson).

The film follows Babylen Tatarsky (Vladimir Epifantsev) a rising star in the Russian advertising business during the end of Perestroika, Mikhail Gorbachev’s program of economic, political, and social reform that started the fall of dominoes that ended with the fall of the Iron Curtain and the Soviet Union in 1989. Perestroika is never mentioned in Generation P. However, Pepsi Cola receives several mentions. It makes for a poignant foreshadowing of the film’s message and how capitalism, consumerism and advertising ultimately overshadow the efforts of Russia’s true modern and humanist leader.

Instead, the leader of Russia depicted in the era of the film is Boris Yeltsin, the president that would deal with parliament’s impeachment of him by rolling up tanks to the building and firing shells at it. Vladimir Epifantsev in Generation PHere is the pre-Putin Russia that has now fittingly returned down a nasty, if subtle, authoritarian path, and— if you follow the film’s thesis— it begins with tripping on mushrooms and celebrating empty ideology that pushes consumers to buy your product based on purely emotional needs.

Indeed, the path of Babylen is a twisting one, reflected in the recurrent image of the Tower of Babel, which haunts the man. Generation P is a dense, smart film that, even with occasional wordy monologues by characters, retains a twisted, entertaining sense of humor. It’s self-reflexive of the film’s own ideology. At one point, one of Babylen’s mentors states plainly, “We need to give people a show so they forget their mommies, their daddies and their government.”

Generation P - still image

In the end, Babylen is on a trip toward oblivion via advertising, which distills owning things to owning empty ideologies. As he transforms from an underemployed university graduate, who majored in Russian literature and poetry, to an advertising executive, Babylen grows increasingly attached to his alternate life on mushrooms, which helps him bear selling out to the business. Realities blur, as a drug that inspired his breakthrough ideas seem to ensnare him, reducing him to something beyond the medium as message.

Hans Morgenstern

Generation P is not rated but is for adults (consider the role of hallucinogens in the film) is in Russian with English subtitles and runs 112 minutes. The first 50 people to purchase a ticket to the 7:10 p.m. showing tonight, Dec. 7, and tomorrow, Dec. 8, will receive a 30 percent discount and 2 for drinks 1 (with your movie ticket stub) at the Russian Restaurant Lula Kebab House, 18250 Collins Ave, located down the street from the Aventura AMC. The film’s distributor, New World Distribution, provided a screener for the purpose of this review.

(Copyright 2012 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

“We’re all bad seeds,” says a character in Elena, a Russian film so focused on moral corruption it feels like a perfectly symmetrical sculpture of drama. The film by Andrei Zvyagintsev unfolds with a graceful efficiency that I have not experienced since the Dardenne Brothers’ Kid With a Bike (‘The Kid With a Bike’ harnesses potency of simple filmmaking). But where that film ended on a poetic, if ambiguous note, Elena hums along on a stark, chilling drone that never lets the viewer go.

The film’s tone steers far from the high-pitched. Zvyagintsev guides the drama with a firm, steady hand. It opens slow, as dawn arrives outside an upscale apartment. The shrieks of crows on the bare branches outside the ultra-modern apartment turn to the twitter of little birds. Inside, a couple wakes in separate beds. Middle-aged Elena (Nadezhda Markina) gets up just ahead of her alarm, and she wanders to another room to tap her slightly older-looking husband, Vladimir (Andrey Smirnov). Their relationship seems ambiguous at first, even after discussion of family and money. Instead,little details of it (they have been married two years, he met her when she worked as a nurse almost 10 years earlier) come out in well-placed tidbits here and there, cropping up to do the best service to the drama, calling for an attentive but not over-alert audience.

The film seems to just wash over the viewer with simple but illustrative situations. The viewer will soon meet Elena’s son Sergey (Alexey Rozin) and his family, after Elena takes a lengthy trek via streetcar then train followed by a long walk. All the while Philip Glass’ broody  “Symphony No. 3, Movement III” drones along. It is the only extra-diegetic music Zvyagintsev uses, and it will only appear three times in the film. Like the best of efficient filmmakers, Zvyagintsev knows how to use mood music for maximal effect, cuing audience awareness.

He also knows how to use action, dialogue and set pieces to their fullest narrative potential, including subtext. The extreme difference between Sergey’s rundown, tiny apartment, located near a nuclear power plant, which also houses his wife, teenage son and baby boy feels cramped. It seems to ooze cheap possessions from its cracking façade. The graffiti covered hallways on the ground floor, along with the teenage punk loiterers stooped outside the building sharing a bottle of drink bring to mind A Clockwork Orange.

Elena is a stark experience to watch unfold, and it is so well made, it almost feels like a spoiler to explain the plot beyond the director’s expert handling of all the devices he can employee of cinema. He earns every scene while avoiding quick, flashy cuts, hysterical acting and over-stylized camera use. The film only has one jarring scene of shaky handheld camera, and when it appears it carries with it an ominous sense of dread.

Zvyagintsev employs steady-handed direction that even makes the banal dreck of game shows and lifestyle reports coming out of the TV in some scene feel relevant to his statement. Do not expect much of a cathartic release come the film’s end. In fact, the path the director takes to arrive there feels like a sickening downward spiral that offers a harsh critique of society and only continues to propagate the scary image of post-Soviet Russia. Despite its bleakness, watching the masterful work of Zvyagintsev offers its own reward. This film did not win the Un Certain Regard Special Jury Prize at Cannes 2011 for nothing.

Hans Morgenstern

Elena is not rated, runs 109 min. and is in Russian with English subtitles. Zeitgeist Films provided a preview screener for the purposes of this review. It opens in South Florida on Friday, June 8, at many independent cinemas Miami Beach Cinematheque, the University of Miami’s Cosford Cinema, Cinema Paradiso, Living Room Theaters, Movies of Delray, Movies of Lake Worth and the Lake Worth Playhouse. For screenings across the nation, visit the film’s official website.

(Copyright 2012 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

My Joy (Schastye moe) is a rare film with concentrated potency in story development as well as social commentary that does not succumb to cheap tricks. I might call this the darkest movie I have ever seen. Flashy shockmiesters like Takashi Miike and Gaspar Noé cannot hold a candle to it. The implications of hopelessness in My Joy go much deeper than the pushing of a moral envelope or raw brutal, horror. It crosses generations and implicates an entire society. No wonder the Russians are so pissed off about this movie.

The film opens with a shot of wet, churning concrete, which some gangsters will soon use to seal away a body. The lumpy gray mix swirls and folds over itself in a continuous cycle that leads only to a dark abyss. It’s a fitting image for the grim story of My Joy, which not only follows the doomed journey of Georgy (Viktor Nemets), a trucker on the back roads of post-communist Russia, but also encapsulates the cross-generational downward spiral of a corrupt nation.

If you are wondering if there is any hope in My Joy, well, despite the title, there is none. But it takes a man who loves his country to paint such a bleak portrait of it. As Fassbinder did with Berlin Alexanderplatz in the early eighties, director Sergei Loznitsa, who had only worked in documentaries up until this feature film, has angered his countrymen with this film, according to an article by Michael Koresky.

Loznitsa offers a story that unfolds in a non-linear narrative. It’s a brilliant creative move as scenes of Russia during World War II and the current time flow into each with associative dream logic. But My Joy is more nightmare than dream, as one scene after another offers a portal to even starker and grimmer situations, which all too often lead to murder.

The movie’s first pivotal scene happens as an elderly man (Vladimir Golovin) tells Georgy a story after the Russians had invaded Germany at the end of World War II (I know this bit of history very well, as my father was drafted into the German army and survived the brutal military campaign to take Moscow. It is also well known that the Russians raped and pillaged as they marched on Berlin). He was a Soviet Lieutenant back then (Aleksey Vertkov) and was heading back to his village with some modest war trophies: a red dress, a camera and a German soldier’s coat, waiting to catch a train. Another Soviet officer (Dmitriy Gotsdiner) is making the rounds asking travelers for their papers and invites the lieutenant to sit with him for a drink. This officer at one point drapes the coat over his shoulders to model it for the lieutenant. “It suits you,” says the Lieutenant. “You look like a real German.”

Of course, the comment stings the commander, and, just as the lieutenant is about to board the train, the commander demands the lieutenant turn over his bags. Soon after, as the train pulls away, the lieutenant shoots the commander. “I lost my name there,” the old man tells Georgy. And on the films goes, in a full throttle journey toward the darkness, a place where you give up a sense of humanity, of self, of morals, in order to survive one moment to the next in a world where no one can care less, not even you to your own person.

Though the film is quietly paced, a tense, ominous air hangs heavy over every scene, as if danger lurks everywhere, even when looking out in the distance across vast lands where nature tears through concrete to take back a land man no longer deserves, leaving dilapidated homes and villages that harbor only dilapidated souls. Even a young prostitute (Olga Shuvalova) wants to have nothing to do with turning her life around. When Georgy tries returning her home with money in her pocket without taking any sexual favors, she throws the money back at him and says, “You think you’re so noble? … Are you an idiot? I’ll earn my own money with this,” she says slapping her crotch.

Georgy then walks her village, as the camera turns to its denizens with their worn out, beat up, scraggly, ugly, sad faces, slowly panning from one person to the next before one brutal man pushes through the mass, and the camera follows him until he paces off into the primordial woods encroaching the village’s boundaries. We never glimpse his face.

Credit is due to cinematographer Oleg Mutu (The Death of Mr. Lazarescu and 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days), who certainly brings an elegant production value to the lush imagery that brims with so much character. From the people who populate the film to vistas that only show tiny figures walking to who knows where from who knows what, a sense of dread and mystery surrounds every scene in My Joy.

Georgy moves on from the village, down a back road said to be cursed, but one that will take him around an accident that has choked the main road to a standstill. Day turns to twilight, which turns to night, and it seems he is the only living soul on the road, as he maneuvers his truck around potholes, through a village of derelict homes, with only his headlights to lead the way.

After an encounter with some men who he welcomes to a fire and roasted potatoes, Georgy ends up laid out from a blow to the head that seems to come out of nowhere. Then it’s on to another scene from World War II where two soldiers are given food and shelter by a man and his young son. One soldier asks the man, who says he is a teacher, if there are police in this seeming one-home village. “We thrive untended like the grass,” says the teacher who admits his hope for a school once the war has ended. “Germans are civilized. They’ll establish a school,” he tells these soldiers. Of course it will not end well for such an idealist.

One scene after another fascinates, and Loznitsa, who also wrote the screenplay based on stories he heard during his years as a documentary filmmaker, wastes no words of dialogue, as it all seems to reverberate with the ghosts of the past and the foreboding of the future. Do not misread this review. This is not about celebrating a film because of its doom and gloom. This is about celebrating a filmmaker who can explore the gloom to maximal effect. This movie has an almost literary sensibility, as the seeming anecdotal encounters entwine and illuminate one another. It’s as if Loznitsa is illustrating the collective unconscious of a country that has repercussions on future generations. This director shows immense promise as a feature filmmaker, and he could very well be another Krzysztof Kieślowski.

After he winds up with a concussion that seems to have robbed him of his ability to speak, Georgy ends up beaten and scavenged upon for the rest of the film, absorbed into the village by a woman who will use him in every way, shape and form. He winds up a human zombie, and when he finds himself in a lethal situation of villains, by-standers and victims, his reaction seems to encapsulate oblivion. Where is justice when one has become a zombie? Georgy shambles off into the night, as cars keep passing down that road that lead him on the path to nihilism. What is left when there is no conscience?

Indeed the only thing joyful is in the film’s title. However, there is clear affection driving this movie, as it takes a deep love of country to create such a  freakish nightmare journey into the madness of backwoods Russia. You thought Winter’s Bone was a bad place to find yourself? This is hell on earth. One shudders to think of the US arriving at such a state, as it falls behind in education, innovation and the gap widens between the poor and the rich. As the old man says when his life comes full circle toward the end of the film, “Anything is possible, lad. You know yourself these are troubled times.”

After screening at a few scattered festival dates, including making it into Palme d’ Or competition at Cannes in 2010, My Joy will make its US theatrical debut at the Miami Beach Cinematheque for one night only: Wednesday, Aug. 10 at 8 p.m. This special preview screening even beats its New York screening run.

Hans Morgenstern

(Copyright 2011 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)