Judging by “Transit,” veteran Russian helmer Alexander Rogozhkin’s brand of nostalgia isn’t what it used to be. Pic reprises themes (linguistic misunderstanding, love triangulation, war’s horrors) from Rogozhkin’s well-traveled last pic “The Cuckoo,” but barely expands them, despite its broader canvas. Multi-character drama, set at a Siberian air force station during WWII, stumbles between overcompacted storylines, and feels like an upmarket TV serial that’s mislaid an hour in transit to feature length. Pic looks set for a few fest flyovers and limited offshore sales, followed by bumpy landing on the Russian market.
On the Chukotka peninsula, in northeastern Siberia near Alaska, a Soviet air force base is surprised when their latest shipment of Eastern Front-bound planes from their U.S. allies are flown in by comely American female pilots. Before the women wing their way back, international romance is seeded during an impromptu, gramophone-scored dance on the asphalt.
The flyboys chat up their dance partners in Russian, undeterred that these Yankee flygirls can’t understand a word they’re saying. A stripped-down version of the same language-barrier conceit formed narrative engine for Rogozhkin’s Finnish-set romance, “The Cuckoo,” but characters here are too skimpily delineated and laid aside by sprawling plot to generate substantial sympathy.
It doesn’t help that pic’s English-speaking thesps (Sarah Bulley, Caterina Innnocente, Sarah Rutley and Anna Marina Bensaud) are as stiff as a copse of Alaskan cedars.
Rogozhkin fares a bit better with his Russian cast, and “Transit” at its best, with its withering portrait of Soviet bureaucratic incompetence and malice, faintly recalls helmer’s still well-regarded black comedies and surreal dramas from the 1990s such as “Peculiarities of the National Hunt” and “The Checkist.”
Particularly redolent of the latter pic is subplot involving base commander Yurchenko (Alexei Serebryakov) who, having been driven more than half mad by shellshock and alcoholism, takes out his fury on his soldiers and staff. Luckily, this is frequently thwarted by a camp-wide conspiracy to keep him locked up as often as possible in his own quarters.
This leaves chiseled if bland Captain Lisnevsky (Danill Strakhov) to run the base and pay court to Yurchenko’s disappointed-with-life wife Irina (Anastasia Nemolyaeva, whose strong jaw and long-suffering dignity here suggests she’d make a fine Hedda Gabler).
Also affecting is Yuri Orlov (“Russian Ark”) as Romadanovsky, a gangly scarecrow of a man who’s been transformed by a spell in the Gulag from gifted, top-ranked academic into a humble, but apparently equally gifted, cook. Indeed, pic’s logjam of such intriguing minor characters, whose backstories require exposition-heavy introductions, eventually makes film feel like a pilot for a high-toned soap opera, even though final epilogue unsatisfyingly attempts closure.
Despite script’s fuzziness, craft contributions from regular Rogozhkin collaborators provide not inconsiderable pleasures. Andrey Zhegalov wintry widescreen lensing does justice to tundra location’s desolate vistas and hardscrabble landscape, while score by Dmitry Pavlov adds some of the plangency the drama can’t deliver.