Highlights of Russian Film Week

We pick four of the best from London fest.

by Amber Wilkinson

Attraction will open Russian Film Week
Attraction will open Russian Film Week

As the second Russian Film Week announced its programme in London this week, I was one of a group of international journalists lucky enough to be taking part in the first FIPRESCI Colloquium dedicated to Russian cinema, which I'll be writing more about in the coming days.

The great news for London cinefiles is, they can enjoy some of the same films that we've been getting the chance to see on their home turf and which suggest that the current cinematic landscape in Russia is both drawing on tradition and breaking new ground, with several debut directors making their mark. The festival runs from November 19 to 26, and while the programme, in general, is strong, I particularly recommend the following:

Attraction - This opening night film from actor-turned-director Fedor Bondarchuk is an alien invasion story with a Russian twist. When an alien spacecraft is forced to crashland in Moscow, Yulya (Irina Starshenbaum) and her boyfriend Artoyam (Alexander Petrov) both find themselves mixed up in different ways with one of the aliens aboard (Rinal Mukhametov) - a situation further complicated by the fact that Yulya's dad (Oleg Menshikov) is a high-ranking military chief. Bondarchuk's film takes a refreshingly humanistic approach to the subject, blending a potential romance with familiar ET themes, while also finding time to touch on the rise of the right and populism in modern Russia (a subject many outside the country will find strikes a chord). While this is unapologetically mainstream - and has enjoyed significant box office success in Russia - it is not just a CGI extravaganza, although the technical credits match anything coming out of Hollywood. Read our full review and what Fedor Bondarchuk said about the film.

Mathilde (Matilda) - Aleksey Uchitel gives his sumptuous costume melodrama a fairy tale sweep as he retells the story of Tsar Nicholas II's (Lars Eidinger) real-life affair with ballerina Matilda Kshesinskaya (Michalina Olszanska) prior to his marriage to Alexandra Feodorovna (Luise Wolfram). The film sparked huge controversy in the country prior to its release, including protests and even terror attacks, as Nicholas is viewed as a saint by the Greek Orthodox Church - violence condemned by the church itself. The film - which will close Russian Film Week - puts the beautiful interiors of some of St Petersburg's finest palaces to good use and features meticulous and magnificent costume work by Nadezhda Vasileva. A subplot about a soldier desperate to have Matilda for himself feels a bit tacked on for effect but the central romance is well handled and the crisis of conscience experienced by Nicholas believable. It's also heartening to see space given to the role of Alexandra, so that she is not merely a pawn in the love game between her fiance and his mistress. Read what Uchitel said about the film and our full review.

Arrhythmia - Romance gets a much more modern makeover in Boris Khlebnikov's story of a marriage in crisis, co-written by Natalya Meshchaninova. The troubles between Oleg (Alexander Yatsenko) and his wife Katya (Irina Gorbacheva) are set against the backdrop of the work of paramedics in Russia. Khlebnikov and Meschchaninova capture the essence of long-term relationships at the point when the firework bursts of highs and lows have been replaced by the dripping tap of minor annoyances that are becoming harder to ignore, yet the urge to kiss and make up is still dominant. The film is particularly notable for great performances by Yatsenko and Gorbacheva, who make sure we can see what is keeping them together as well as what is driving them apart. Read the full review here.

Closeness - A deserved winner of the FIPRESCI prize at this year's Cannes Film Festival in the Un Certain Regard section, this is a remarkably accomplished debut by Kantemir Balagov. Co-written with Anton Yarush, the action takes place in 1998 near the Russia/Chechnya border against the background of what would become the Second Chechen War. Here the tomboyish Ila (Darya Zhovner) lives with her Jewish family, helping her father (Atrem Cipin) in his car garage. The Closeness of the title refers to the tightknit nature of the family and the community but also the relationship Ila has with her brother David (Atrem Cipin), which has the danger of borderline incestuousness. Ila's 'forbidden' relationship with a Kabardian (Nazir Zhukov) and a sudden kidnapping shake the family to the core. Balagov's idea of closeness extends to his framing. The whole film is shot in a claustrophobic 4:3 aspect ratio, with Ila increasingly framed - if not, ultimately, trapped - in smaller and smaller areas within that frame. A tense exploration of mother and daughter relationships as well as a gripping character study, the only reservation is the inclusion of genuine execution footage from the period - real victims (and their families), who, it seems, have no say on their inclusion here. Read what the director said about the film.

Details of the full programme and venues for Russian Film Week can be found on the official site.

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