Director Petros Sevastikoglou, Moscow-born of Greek parentage, takes advantage of his dual-nation background to give old cliches a fresh ironic twist in the Russian-lingo “Wind Over the City.” Pic mixes traditional Russian motifs — love, melancholy, vodka, suicide — into a fairy-tale story of a troupe of traveling players arriving at, and disrupting, a small industrial town in the steppe. Neither plot nor themes are anything new, but the movie, shot in misty, atmospheric monochrome, weaves a rich, poignant fantasy that harks back to such 19th-century classics as Gogol and Chekhov. Further fest life looms.
Sevastikoglou’s troupe seems to have only one piece in its repertoire — a Bluebeard-like fable about an old, jealous king, his young, beautiful queen, and the jester who tricks his way into the palace and steals the queen’s love. The arrival of the ramshackle troupe in a steppe town overturns the life of Nikita (Taras Koliadov), a naive young foundry worker. Dazzled and bemused by their tawdry magic, he falls heavily for Alina (Anna Yanoskaia), a waif-like young actress who plays the queen, and unwisely resolves to take her away from all that.
The troupe members recall the picture-book figures of commedia dell’arte. Their leader, Mesmer (Zinoviev Gert), who plays a wizard, is old and irascible, given to quoting King Lear. There’s Zingaro (Sergei Desnitski), drunken and cynical, who plays the king; Alcott the jester (Gena Nazarov), zany and sensitive, hopelessly in love with Alina; and Titan, a grizzle-bearded giant who acts as stagehand. The relationships among them are mirrored by those of the townsfolk: the love-hate link between Alcott and Zingaro, part paternal, part homoerotic, parallels that between Nikita and his older co-worker, Grigori.
Throughout, the film offers analogies with the present condition of ex-Soviet Europe, but never rams them crudely home. The foundry where Nikita and his colleagues work is ancient and rickety, lethally accident-prone. (Think Chernobyl.) Out somewhere in a desolate wasteland, a gleaming new city of high-rise apartments is being built, a place where, supposedly, good money can be earned and wonderful things will happen. (These scenes were shot, not in Russia, but on the outskirts of Kiev, capital of Ukraine.)
The traveling troupe reflects the peripatetic past of helmer Sevastikoglou, son of Greek political exiles, who up to age five spoke only Russian, later moved to Paris, and until age 25 lived only three years in Greece. So, too, does Elias Kostandakopoulos’ camera as it meanders down deserted corridors or scans the lost, nostalgic faces in the bar over which Simone (Marina Vlady) presides like the ruined spirit of Mother Russia.
Vlady apart, pic has an all-Russian cast who mesh well in ensemble playing. As Mesmer, the veteran Gert exudes effortless authority; at the other end of the age range, Yanoskaia and Koliadov make a touchingly vulnerable pair of young lovers