Thessaloniki spotlights Russian films

Fest plays host to nation's buzz-worthy directors

In a program that includes 230 films — features and shorts — from 40 countries, the 48th Thessaloniki Intl. Film Festival is spotlighting three new films from Russian directors that, while they may not be featured as top billers at your local cinema anytime soon, are definitely worth a look.

“Cargo 200” (Gruz 200) by the Urals-born helmer Alexei Balabanov is an uncomprisingly dark thriller set during the final years of the Soviet Union.

Screening in Thessaloniki’s indie talent section Independence Days, Balabanov’s new movie is a guaranteed shocker. Starting out as an entirely authentic period piece — complete with a hilarious vodka-sodden debate about the existence of God between an atheist professor of Marxist-Leninism and a deeply religious village muzhik (redneck) — the film rapidly delves down into the darkness of communist Russia, with murder, rape, torture and a roomful of putrefying corpses awaiting viewers who manage to remain in their seats.

The film shocked audiences at Russia’s national film festival Kinotavr in Sochi this summer, among them the hardened critics familiar with the bizarre excesses of Balabanov, whose canon includes such diverse offerings as 1997 national gangster hit “Brother” (Brat) and 1998’s sepia-toned odyssey of fin de siecle St. Petersburg pornography, “Of Freaks and Men” (Pro urodov i lioudiei).

When asked about the film’s message, the helmer deadpanned that it had no relevance to contempo Russia but was simply a story about Soviet times, about what happens in a world without God.

A more gentle filmic reflection about life in contemporary Russia comes from Alexei Popogrebsky’s “Simple Things” (Prosty je vesci), screening in the same indie sidebar.

In his feature debut as a lone director (he collaborated with Boris Khlebnikov on “Roads to Koktebel” in 2003), Popogrebsky’s film — which won the the main prize and a host of others including best director, screenplay and actor for star Sergei Puskepalis at Sochi this summer — is a classic story of a man presented with an ethical dilemma.

When poorly paid doctor (Puskepalis) is offered a valuable painting by a sick old actor in return for helping him die, his life becomes anything but simple.

Elegantly told and with beautiful performaces (including that of revered veteran Soviet actor Leonid Bronevoy) “Simple Things” picked up another best actor gong for Puskepalis at September’s Vladivostok Pacific Meridien festival.

Alexsander Mindadze’s “Soar” (Otryv), an intriguing take on one man’s desperate journey to discover the fate of a girlfriend lost when a passenger jet crashes, is in Thessaloniki’s international competition.

Produced by Moscow’s independent production shingle Central Parternship, “Soar” has a nonlinear structure that prompts a sense of disorientation similar to that its grief-stricken protaganist is suffering.

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