Reviewed by: Andrew Robertson

"There's a good rule of thumb about the quality of a film being inversely proportionate to the number of writers, but Leto's five have summoned something darling and deep, complex and not confused."

There's so much going on in Leto that I wondered if the appropriate analogy is not the spinning of plates but (thematically pleasing) the harmonies of a classic 'beat combo'. Lead guitar the blossoming of the state-sanctioned rock and roll career of VIktor Tsoy (Teo Yu). Rhythm guitar the state sanction of aviator-shaded apparatchik Mayk Naumenko (Roma Zver). Bass guitar, an insistent heartbeat, the bright clear metallic tone of a love triangle, Natalia ('Natasha') Naumenko, a great performance from Irina Starshenbaum. Behind them, as important for when it isn't sounding as when it is, a sharp staccato drumbeat of the passage of time.

Punk rock. Leningrad. 1980. Something is coming.

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Director Kirill Serebrennikov's film is far from his first but in truth it's vanishingly unlikely you've seen anything he's done before. This is a shame because he's clearly got a keen eye - Leto ('Summer') creates a sense of time and place and space with background detail and a lush monochrome that recalls Roma for reasons other than proximity to streaming platforms. This black and white is punctured occasionally by colour, astonishingly so, musical interludes that never happened in a story gradually revealed as "based on the memories of". There's a good rule of thumb about the quality of a film being inversely proportionate to the number of writers, but Leto's five have summoned something darling and deep, complex and not confused.

Let's credit perhaps the distance afforded by subtitles, a movie being read sometimes has the paper to smooth cracks caught by those whose fluency allows them to find fumbles. Yet that said, the presence of a sequences that stir smiles is made all the more impressive by fourth wall declarations that they did not happen.

I reference 'beat' but this is perhaps more punk - even prototypically or prehistorically so. An accident of commerce (blame Harry Styles) meant I was reminded of Roxy Music's In Every Dreamhome A Heartache, and if I were to break with convention and instead of a review suggest a piece of music to convey the tone and feel of a film then specifically the band's appearance on the Old Grey Whistle Test in 1973. Something about that proto-gothic archness, the melancholy of merchandising, the reduction of femininity to sex object, a magisterial wig-out at about 3'30", Eno's feathers, Ferry's intermittently furrowed brow, a palette of colour that is so distinct that to see those oranges and greens is to be transported to a living room before the three day week as Britain joined the EEC. History.

I really liked Leto. I knew going in of 'bones', the copies of Western records etched onto old X-Ray plates, a skeletal samizdat, Sievert scrimshander, Roentgen rock and roll, and if you think that mix of music and medical physics and memento mori is interesting then this film is for you too. I enjoyed this enough that I wanted to exceed the approved levels of approval - more than applause, I wanted signs, to dance, but I must settle for singing its praises.

Songs abound, unsurprisingly, though their presentation often delights. There were perhaps licensing issues - a telephone call owes a debt to Blondie, but despite the chess piece's freedom "a kind of magic" brings no Queen. The original songs cover a wide variety of genres, artists, broken hearted blues are not the only dinosaurian laments - the ossified state acknowledges the 20th century through Olympic efforts (and keep an eye out for Misha) but seeks to constrain youthful rebellion with appropriate channels. It still leaves a window open, and that's enough.

In an among its 'episodes', musical interludes, a willingness to address the audience directly, to clamber about the screen and discuss the business of regulatory capture, to have a band called Girvan & The Hyperboloids, to play with time and space and have a Gallagheresque rock and roll star on a stage in what was then not and would then be again St Petersburg, to say more with a set of numbers on screen than any number of words or notes could achieve, to construct from performances (actors, musical) a series of senses, Leto is ludic, lucid, lavish, lovely.

Reviewed on: 09 Aug 2019
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A love triangle emerges around a rock and roll musician, his protege and his wife in Eighties Russia.
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Director: Kirill Serebrennikov

Writer: Mikhail Idov, Lili Idova, Ivan Kapitonov, Kirill Serebrennikov, based on the book by Natalya Naumenko

Starring: Teo Yoo, Irina Starshenbaum, Roman Bilyk

Year: 2018

Runtime: 126 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: Russia, France


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