The late Russian poet and screenwriter G.Shpalikov had a wise line: “Never come back to the old places”. I won’t say that’s a strict rule, but director B.Frumin’s melodrama Viva, Castro! Convinces from its first episodes that nostalgia for his youthful experiences in the ‘60s didn’t help him create some special piece of art. The attraction of “the time of good hopes”, brightly reflected in M.Hutsiev’s 1962 I’m 20 and G.Danelia I Am Walking in the Streets of Moscow (both movies, by the way, made from G.Shpalikov scripts) in lost in Viva, Castro! The young actors are dull and stiff, the love story is unemotional and weary against the background of a 1966 visit by Cuban leader Castro to Moscow. The spirit of those days is evoked only by the soundtrack’s songs from archival tapes.
Some years ago B.Frumin could make much better melodramas. But having captured the attention of audiences with The Diary of the Principal (1976) and Family Melodrama (1977), he became a victim of s\censorship. His 1978 film Mistakes of Youth was banned; he emigrated to the USA where he couldn’t manage to find success. After making Black and White in 1991 he has attempted, with this film, to return to his Russian roots, not listening to Shpalikov’s advice. Unfortunately.
Y.Moroz’s film The Black Square is based on the detective novel by F.Neznansky, The Fair in Sokolniki, whose action takes place in 1983. For Russia that year was extraordinary, as ex-KGB leader Andropov tried to fight the Mafia in the highest State spheres. The novel’s main character, a young investigator, gradually understands that the trail of an apparently ordinary murder leads to the Kremlin, where plans of world control involve seizing the planet’s main oil resources.
This could have been filmed as a serious traditional detective story. Moroz chose what I find a more successful approach – half parody, with an accent on the detective’s humor, and half tricks. The cast, understanding the director’s aim very well, enjoyed acting, making fun of commonplace details in past Russian life (like so-called “grocery requests” with were the privilege of the authorities only, because of the lack of food in stores).
Not placing any special stylistic emphasis on 1983, Moroz nevertheless recreates the atmosphere of that time pretty convincingly… a time when Russia fought not only with the Mafia, but with its own ordinary people, too, if they happened to be outdoors during working hours.
Watching these characters form a ‘90s point of view, the film’s authors certainly understand how naïve and unrealistic dreams about victory over corruption were. That’s where the bitter feeling radiating through the comedic action comes from. Famous Russian abstractionist Kazemir Malevich’s canvas The Black Square becomes a symbol of unbeaten Evil, whom the Good is doomed to forever fight.
Agatha Christie’s Arithmetic
Dmitry Svetosarov, who likes showy cinema, is not a very consistent director. Now he flashes with European professionalism `a la Claude Lelouch in The Speed (1983), now he sags into dull naturalism with The Dogs (1990). In The Arithmetic of Murder Svetosarov decided to stay with the traditional detective format. The crime in the film is investigated with all rules of the genre: detailed questioning of witnesses and suspects, the appearance of some convincing alibis and so on.
A Petersburg public flat, at firs sight very common, turns from episode to episode into a mysterious tangle of criminal threads in Agatha Christie’s favorite method: any character could have committed the crime. The film doesn’t limit itself, however, to the arithmetic of a detective thriller. S.Bekhtirev plays the main role of armchair-bound invalid. Never destroying suspense and other attributes of the genre, he creates a contradictory image of the man, aspiring to the… But I shall not reveal mystery. There are many surprises, and the film, although far from a Hitchcockian masterpiece, is psychologically convincing, never dull. And cinematographer S.Astahov demonstrates great skill working in feebly lighted rooms.
The Day Before, form the viewpoint of this writer who is very tired of unprofessional movies about the Mafia, starts riskily. A group of actors, sitting in armchairs, speaks in wooden, false voices about some machinations. In a minute, however, you understand that it’s a sharp parody of Russian F-class action movies.
After this prefatory trick the film’s debuting directors, former actors O.Boretsky and A.Negreba, take an abrupt turn into stylization. The story becomes one of nice, handsome young men and women trying to preserve the ambience of 1970 “kitchen talks” in the ‘90s: sociable jokes, romantic attractions, intelligent discussions. In a word, praise to friendship. In this main part of the movie the attentive viewer will find a lot of cinema quotations from films of the ‘70s by O.Ioseliani, K.Muratova, etc. It’s a playful stylization in many ways. Not for a minute does it become the fruit of cold calculation, or lose its free, elegant spirit of improvisation.
Then the alarming signals of other words intrude on the movie’s intellectual lyricism: a sex maniac attacks one of the heroines; the other charming woman, aiming to prevent a rape, plucks out the eye of a street beggar. After such encroachments the final events of the film, with all their unexpectedness, have a certain logic. Feeling cheated, as were we all in that time, the intellectuals do not become nice heroes. Donning masks and taking up guns, they engage in murder and robbery “to get to the West”. In this way the film reflects the old story of some of Tbilisi’s youthful elite who tried to fly an airplane away from the hated USSR.
After this mutual directorial debut, Boretsky and Negreba decided to go their own ways, though their duet, to my mind, turned out to be organic and united.