A Russian opera singer undergoes a strange transformation after her son disappears without a trace during a visit to her hometown in helmer Kirill Serebrennikov's sophomore feature "Yuri's Day."

A Russian opera singer undergoes a strange transformation after her son disappears without a trace during a visit to her hometown in helmer Kirill Serebrennikov’s sophomore feature “Yuri’s Day.” Scripted by longtime Alexander Sokurov collaborator Yuri Arabov (“Moloch”), pic — with its enigmatic storyline, melancholic atmosphere and surreal touches — feels squarely in the tradition of highbrow Russian art cinema. Result is often bewitching, but also occasionally bewildering, and way too long for its own good. Still, “Yuri” is sure to have its day and more on the fest circuit.

Famous opera thrush Lyubov (Ksenyia Rappoport) takes her sulky 20-year-old son Andrei (Roman Shmakov) to visit her frankly crummy-looking hometown, some distance from Moscow, for a sentimental journey before they move to Europe. Decked out in designer duds, Lyubov sticks out like a sore thumb among the locals, but she couldn’t care less as she drags Andrei off to look at the town’s landmarks. The two bicker constantly via some sharp dialogue, and it becomes clear Andrei’s none too keen on leaving Mother Russia, however much he mocks it.

When Lyubov wakes up from a nap on a bench, Andrei has vanished. She tries to report the disappearance at the local police station but is told she must wait another two days before she can officially declare her son missing.

The next day, a body is found by the river; Lyubov runs to check it out, but the corpse is not Andrei’s. More false alarms follow. Afraid to leave lest Andrei shows up, Lyubov starts to settle in to the town and gradually blends in with the locals, eventually becoming unrecognizable as the glamorous diva she once was.

Plot could usefully be summarized as “L’Avventura” meets “Groundhog Day,” although it’s far from clear that Lyubov’s transformation should be considered a good thing. Drunk, violent and greedy, the locals are hardly paragons of peasant virtue, and Lyubov is physically attacked when she tries to help convicts locked in a TB ward at the hospital (an interlude that drags out pic’s running time). There’s a hint of religious epiphany at the end, but it’s cold comfort, indeed. Pic could be read as an allegory about Russia itself, seen here a sort of spiritual Hotel California, from which, to paraphrase the Eagles, you can check out but you can never leave.

Some auds won’t take to pic’s tonal shift from naturalism to black humor and surrealism, or wonder why Lyubov doesn’t just get another cell phone when her first one breaks, or move her search to Moscow, where Andrei is most likely to have gone. But that’s like asking why, in Kafka’s “The Trial,” Josef K. doesn’t get himself a really good lawyer. In any event, stylish helming by Serebrennikov, who’s learned a few tricks since his scrappy but intriguing debut, “Playing the Victim,” makes the evolution feel seamless.

Superb central perf by Rappoport, who won the actress prize at the Sochi fest, grips attention as her Lyubov takes downward mobility to a new low. Although thesp is lip-syncing to another’s rich contralto voice when her character bursts (sometimes inexplicably) into song, she carries off such moments with conviction and more besides.

Oleg Lukichev’s lensing, which grows more expressionist as the pic progresses, looks terrific, while the growling, menacing sound design reps another standout element. However, the whole thing could be trimmed by 10 minutes or more to tighten it up and improve export potential.

Yuri's Day

Russia

Production

A Noviye Lyudi Film Co. production, in association with Rohfilm, the National Reserve Corp., with the support of the Federal Agency of Culture and Cinematography of the Russian Federation, Mitteldeutsche Medienfoerderung. (International sales: Noviye Lyudi, Moscow.) Produced by Uliana Savelieva. Executive producer, Natasha Mokritskaya. Co-producers, Karsten Stoeter, Benny Drechsel, Mila Rozanova. Directed by Kirill Serebrennikov. Screenplay, Yuri Arabov.

Crew

Camera (color, widescreen), Oleg Lukichev; editor, Olga Grinshpun; music, Sergei Nevsky; production designer, Yuri Grigorovich; costume designer, Irina Grazhdankina; sound (Dolby Digital), Tilo Feinermann. Reviewed at Sochi Open Russian Film Festival, June 13, 2008. Running time: 137 MIN.

With

Ksenyia Rappoport, Evgenia Kuznetsova, Sergei Sosnovsky, Roman Shmakov, Sergei Medvedev, Igor Khripunov. Russian, German dialogue.
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