Dienstag, 17. Februar 2015

Berlinale: Под электрическими облаками (Under Electric Clouds) / Пионеры-герои (Pioneer Heroes)

(Originally appeared in EXBERLINER on Feb. 10, 2015)

By a certain point at any major film festival, the viewer's patience inevitably starts to wear thin. So the ample amount of walk-outs at the press screening of the 140-minute Russian Competition entry "Под электрическими облаками (Under Electric Clouds)", in which nothing ever makes much sense, doesn't really come as a surprise. With no noteworthy plot to speak of, it's a vast, mystifying, nihilistic contemplation on history and the essence of being that would prove a tough film to sit through.

Divided into seven chapters with different sets of characters that share the flimsiest of connection, the elusive, insubstantial quality of the film is further exacerbated by the fact that even within any individual section, people tend to talk in circles, talk to themselves, talk over one another and generally just say the strangest things. It's a regular occurrence that someone would declare, unsolicited, something as impenetrable as "I just had a dream about diseases and now I don't eat tomatoes." And the response to that might well be the still more confusing statement. Overall a lot is spoken but there are precious few meaningful conversations. And although a couple of commonalities, or just symbolic cues like nosebleeds and construction sites can be established between the individual segments, it'd be a stretch to claim correlation or God forbid, even coherence.
What writer/director Alexey German Jr. manages to achieve, however, is communicating a languid, trance-like atmosphere that transcends reality/fiction and approaches something immaterial but vital, indescribable but timeless. It speaks to the past and the future as well as the repetition and the futility of human endeavors. Through striking production design that places surrealist structures of every kind throughout the picture, the sense of wandering in an all-encompassing realm of dreams and sighs becomes all the more pronounced.  

Discontinuous, random and utterly impenetrable, this movie might come across as a giant heap of gibberish to most. Having said that, this is a gutsy attempt at experimental cinema which demonstrates, if not yet a full-fledged directorial vision, then many of the exciting prerequisites thereof.

Another movie from Russia that deals with the past and especially the disillusionment of the present is Natalya Kudryashova's "Пионеры-герои (Pioneer Heroes)". Centered around three lifelong friends from the last generation before the collapse of the Soviet Union, it's composed of two parallel narratives that show the trio in their school years, determined to become the worshiped pioneer heroes fighting for the socialist cause, and now, when they're in their thirties, disoriented by the complexities of a changed world and desperate to hold on to a last glimmer of those childhood aspirations.

Viewed from its conclusion alone, some may find faults with the simplistic dichotomy between the rosy communist society and the merciless capitalist one. But at the heart of the story it's actually more about coping with adulthood and the realization that many promises in life will go unfulfilled, which should strike a universal chord. The script is not marked by subtlety but conjures plenty of endearing details about growing up in a party state. The extensive and tireless propaganda is not mocked but looked on with nostalgic tenderness, its only crime the unrealistically big dreams it made the children dream. Kudryashova, who makes her directorial debut here, moves things along with impressive fluency and makes her point succinctly, if at times a bit too forcefully. All six actors playing the three lead characters are fine, with a particularly winning young Olga whose innocent, absolute faith in the flag is quietly devastating.      

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