Soviet emigre Slava Tsukerman has spent much of his career crafting docus detailing the lesser-known stories of the former USSR, yet he’s best known as the renegade director behind 1982’s hallucinatory cyberpunk freak-out “Liquid Sky.” With “Perestroika,” he fuses both halves of his filmmaking persona, turning the semi-autobiographical story of a returning Russian refugee into a deeply strange, breezily existential cocktail of Milan Kundera and Federico Fellini. The film, which opened March 20 in Los Angeles, is unwieldy, overstuffed and at times hopelessly clunky, yet it’s also touchingly funny, visually arresting and somehow a consistent joy to watch. Cult status and a cultivated following in the nooks and crannies of all venues where films are seen these days are indicated.
Functioning as something of a stand-in for the director is middle-aged astrophysicist Sasha Greenberg (Sam Robards, boasting a spot-on Russian accent), who returns to Moscow in 1992 after the fall of communism, having spent the past 17 years in New York working for the U.S. military. His ostensible reason for returning is a physics conference at which he’s scheduled to deliver the keynote address, though his time is dominated by reunions with various friends, enemies and lovers, to whom he is both a hero and a suspicious curiosity.
Foremost among his connections is mentor and foil Professor Gross (F. Murray Abraham), an American who defected to the USSR, and whose stoical acceptance of his role in developing nuclear weapons for the Soviets is a counterpoint to Sasha’s guilt about doing so for the Americans.
Further complicating matters for Sasha is the sudden convergence of all his past and present love interests, among them Russian astrophysicist Natasha (Oksana Stashenko), American astrophysicist Helen (Ally Sheedy) and Jill (Jicky Schnee), an environmentalist documentarian who happens to resemble a supermodel. Natasha also has a moody young daughter (played with believable teenage awkwardness by first-timer Maria Andreyeva), with whom Sasha develops an instant infatuation — the fact that she’s only 16 and may actually be his daughter is not one of his, or the film’s, primary concerns.
As he negotiates this minefield of personalities and allegiances, Sasha reminisces on his life, detailed in extensive flashbacks that Tsukerman films in an unpredictable array of styles, imbuing the film with grace notes of wistful, avant-garde slapstick. Without ever coming to a head, these conflicts simply build, intermingle and dissipate as the film progresses, while in the background the newly democratic Russia seems on the brink of civil war, all to Sasha’s weary annoyance. “I’m only interested in studying the structural coherence of the universe,” he complains, with the tone of a harried father who just wants to be left alone to watch TV.
Tsukerman loads far too much into the film, with tangential discussions of Russian history and philosophical digressions manifesting from out of nowhere, often at the least appropriate times. At one point, Sasha embarks on a long jeremiad about the disintegration of the traditional family while in the middle of sex with his mistress; in another, a young industrialist and a right-wing journalist debate anti-Semitism and the vulgarity of capitalism while a flamboyant goth band films a musicvideo behind them. In another movie, moments like these would be deal-breakers, but Tsukerman incorporates them perfectly into the rhythm of his film, which, much like the young Russian republic at its heart, excitedly flails out in all directions, unsure of what it wants to be.
Fellini’s influence on the film runs deep, and Robards channels Marcello Mastroianni as the passively resigned Sasha, beset by demanding lovers while entranced by a younger woman who emerges as a sort of Platonic ideal. The film’s final scene is even lovingly lifted from “La dolce vita,” completing the sense of homage.
Alexander Zhurbin’s score is excellent. Some tech credits are strangely spotty, though perhaps intentionally so.