“Amelie”-style whimsy is crossed with Slavic sadness and flecks of Fellini to mostly pleasing effect in “Mars,” an auspicious first feature about a boxer adrift in a strange Crimean town from young helmer Anna Melikian. Candy-colored pic sometimes strains a little too hard to reach magical atmosphere, but pretty lensing, fetching locations and handsome cast make up an appealing package. Domestic auds failed to land on “Mars” following domestic release in autumn 2004, but pic’s fey charms might work better on auds abroad, particularly with femme viewers.
Washed-up boxer Boris (Gosha Kutsenko) gets off a train in the slightly surreal township of Mars, formerly known as Marks (i.e. the Russian spelling of “Marx”) until the “k” in the station’s neon sign burned out. Stuffed, plush toys, made at a local factory, form the only available currency in the isolated burg. Consequently, Boris’ wallet full of roubles and his coveted train ticket to Moscow keep getting purloined by the kooky locals, particularly a light fingered little girl (Nadia Kamenkovich) who is only appeased when Boris takes her to the zoo.
However, Boris himself ends up stealing the affections of local librarian Greta (Nana Kiknadze), a beautiful creature whose regular walking habits are under the passionate scrutiny of puppyish suitor Grigori (Artur Smolianinov). It all goes tragically wrong, much in the tradition of fatalistic Russian romances, but a fantasy ending offers a happy alternative with a red-dressed Greta flying high above the town roofs in homage to the paintings of Marc Chagall.
Indeed, fashioning ravishing visual images seem to be Melikian’s strong suit, from the aforementioned to a shot of a burning hut on a cliff edge, to scenes of Mars’ empty streets at dawn, depopulated because Grigori has bribed the local radio DJ to announce a tornado warning. At one point Melikian puts Greta on unseen wheels for an impressively dreamy, gliding trip around the library’s dusty stacks.
Whether all that adds up to a coherent film is more arguable, but end result is still more accessible than the wilder excesses of most arthouse Russian pics that surface on the fest circuit. All in all, pic feels more French or Italian than east of the Danube.
Kutsenko, a popular Russian thesp via the local hit “Antkiller” franchise and familiar face to foreigners who’ve seen “Night Watch,” makes for an unlikely-looking romantic lead with his shaven head and tattered features but has an old-fashioned masculinity that appeals. Newcomer Kiknadze has a feisty sort of hauteur that works for the part and may prove more than just a pretty face.
Tech credits are pro, enhanced particularly by lashings of magic-hour camerawork from Oleg Lukichev that shows off the various locations, actually scattered over the region rather than found in one specific city, at their most enchanting.