Many of us perceive Russia and its cultural and historical background as mysterious, sometimes dark and misunderstood, but at the same time fascinating. It is a country not only of great writers, but also of directors and scientists, and the year 2021 reminds us of this. For the fifteenth time in Warsaw, we have the opportunity to experience Russian cinema through the Sputnik Film Festival. In addition, this year we celebrate the sixtieth anniversary of the flight into space of the world’s first cosmonaut, Yuri Gagarin, and the bicentenary of the birth of the master of world classical literature, Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoevsky.
The compilation of important events from the world of Russian culture, literature, and history had a significant impact on the shape of the rich Sputnik programme. Festival films show scenes from the lives of contemporary Russians, the history of the country, social problems, cultural codes, and visions of the future of Russia. The repertoire has been divided into several main themes, which include documentaries referring to the history of the country, space themes, screen adaptations of classics of Russian literature, and directorial debuts, accompanied by songs by contemporary rappers and musicians. Intricate stories with a strong emotional charge, where the protagonists’ fate is determined by nature and mysterious external forces, make Russian cinema aims far beyond the usual cinematic patterns.
Fever (2021), Kirill Seriebriennikov
Kirill Seriebriennikov’s film is based on Alexei Salnikov’s novel, and although it is set in the 1990s, according to critics, the director has remarkably captured the essence of the pandemic situation the world is currently facing. It is the story of the family of locksmith Petrov, which falls on New Year’s Eve. The story begins on a city bus, where Petrov, clearly out of sorts, has a coughing fit, and soon afterwards, the illness takes hold of all his family members. Hallucinations and delusions are intertwined with reality, which sometimes makes it difficult to distinguish the truth from the characters’ crazy, dreamy visions. The depicted family problems and interpersonal conflicts show the impermanence of ties and relationships whose closeness is based on appearances. This fantastic, surreal story is set in an unfathomably harsh reality, accompanied by black humour, alcohol, brutality, corruption, and the coldness of the Russian winter. An important element of “Fever” is the music, which complements the fate of the characters, moving from emotive rock to rap songs by Russian artists.
The Idiot (1958), Ivan Pyryev
Ivan Pyryev’s film “The Idiot” is an adaptation of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s novel, and thus a key part of a series of screen adaptations marking the bicentenary of the writer’s birth. Writing the screenplay, Pryryryev made a faithful adaptation of the first part of the novel “Nastasya Filipovna”, the protagonist of which is Prince Lev Nikolaevich Myshkin. The film opens with the scene of the prince returning to Russia from Switzerland, where he was being treated in a psychiatric clinic. On his way, thanks to a merchant he met on a train, Parfien Rogozhin, he learns the story of Nastasya Filippovna, the woman whose love caused his father’s death. It turns out that Nastasia does not only have an easy life, but also a good reputation. She is kept by a high-ranking businessman, Afanasy Ivanovich Totsky, who would most gladly get rid of her by marrying her off to a young secretary to General Japaczyn, a relative of the prince. The situation becomes even more complicated when, having arrived in Petersburg, Lev meets Nastasya and falls in love with her. This is an emotionally charged story with a dynamic plot that portrays the difficult situation of women in 20th century Russia.
House arrest (2021), Alexei German Jr.
“House Arrest” is one of the most touching and emotionally evocative films presented during the Sputnik Film Festival. It is the story of David, a Russian literature lecturer, who is accused of a crime by the local mayor and thus sentenced to house arrest. David adopts the attitude of a romantic hero who tries to regain his freedom and good name, which he does by opposing the authoritarian system of the state. Unfortunately, this results in increasing oppression and brutality on the part of the local authorities. The film touches upon a frequent theme in Russian cinema – it is a sad, depressing story of an individual oppressed by the totalitarian state. Alexei German Junior has created a kind of moral treat, a political manifesto, which at the same time encourages us to re-evaluate the individual values that guide us in life. The craftsmanship of the script and the acting enhance the emotional impact of the film, which cannot be ignored.
The Fisherman’s Daughter (2020), Uldus Bakhtiozina
“The Fisherman’s Daughter” by Uldus Bakhtiozina is the film debut of the artist, best known for her photographs, whose domain is challenging social stereotypes. It is the story of Polina, a fisherman’s daughter who works in her father’s shop. The monotony of her seemingly boring everyday life is interrupted by meeting an eccentric old woman who sells the girl tea for better sleep. This is definitely the turning point of the film, which drastically changes the protagonist’s fate. Polina finds herself in a new, completely different reality, where she is prepared for the role of the Tsar’s daughter. Eccentric costumes, exaggerated make-up, and gold teeth evoke associations of a contemporary vision of avant-garde theatre with elements of scenes known from reality shows and reinterpretations of the Russian “Alice in Wonderland”. Setting the whole story in the characteristic realities of Russian culture and Soviet architecture creates a kind of surreal fairy tale whose moral seems to be obvious – the director strikes at the artificial creation of mass culture. It is a surrealistically beautiful, magical story that entertains, and at the same time, makes you think.
Road to the stars (1957), Pavel Klushantsev
As it has already been mentioned, this year’s festival repertoire thematically refers to the anniversaries we are celebrating this year. No wonder, then, that the cosmos and its phenomenon are notoriously recurrent in the films presented. “Road to the Stars” surprises first of all with the high level of numerous special effects, especially considering the date the film was made (mid-20th century). It is a story of cosmonauts who first scientifically plan a journey into space and then realise this vision. The costumes, rocket construction, and the galaxy itself are all elements of the director’s surprisingly accurate cosmic projection of the first flight to the moon. Pavel Klyushantsev combines elements of popular scientific movies with science fiction. Interestingly, the premiere took place a month after the launch of the Earth’s artificial satellite, Sputnik. The film can then be seen as a harbinger of the coming era of space experiments.
Sputnik Russian Film Festival