Extraordinary memoir taps into veteran helmer Leonid Maryagin’s own adolescence, which peaked in summer after Stalin’s death. An incisive portrait of a community living in vague but thoroughly entrenched fear, “101st Kilometer” makes the political personal by focusing on one lad who should be an exemplary citizen but is instead driven to increasing antisocial acts of desperation. Pic’s Bresson-like austerity and purposely disjointed, black-and-white narrative will be off-putting to exhibitors, but it makes for ideal fest fare. (Pic won prizes at last year’s Karlovy Vary and Ljubljana events.)
Seventeen-year-old Leonid (Piotr Fedorov) is the sharpest student in his class, and he’s tall, strong, and handsome. But he’s also the son of a Jewish functionary who has been banished, without explanation, to Orechovo-Zuyevo, a small burg more than an hour from Moscow — hence the title, which refers to the distance “undesirables” have to keep away from the capital.
Since his fellow students and even his grudgingly admiring teacher treat him with suspicion, Leonid drifts into the circle dominated by fellow outcast Kostya (cast standout Oleg Zhukov), a Mafia don recently released from prison. This dapper, sentimental thug takes the lad under his wing, and even his roughest colleagues are surprised to see how resourceful the stoical “Yid” is when it comes to thieving from local storehouses and such.
For his part, Leonid is much more interested in young Rita (Glafira Sotnikova), who lives in converted barracks in the roughest part of town. But her mother is hostile, his own family is anxious and the KGB is trying to get him to rat on villagers who listen to Voice of America. When he gets in an escalating beef with one of Kostya’s more stupid henchmen, Lenny finds himself with nowhere to turn.
Main story, told in episodic flashbacks — after a start that turns out to be near the finish — is interspersed with color footage from Soviet propaganda pics. This imagery, backed by anthemic period music, concentrates on a mythical cornucopia of tasty foodstuffs, while scrawny denizens of “Kilometer” squabble over a bag of flour, a stray potato, a bolt of cloth or even bricks from an old building.
Maryagin eschews expository dialogue in favor of stark, pungent atmosphere, with sense of prevailing irony underscored by visits, and even the occasional song, from local bumpkins with names like Vovka the Madcap and Vitka the Smarty. It’s hard to know what helmer is getting at with plot threads like Kostya’s relationship with a tough prostitute called Rufka (Larissa Shatilo), and there is some wooden acting from a few of the extras. Still the proliferation of rustic faces and places — and the near-surrealistic situations — ring right for the dimming twilight of Soviet power.