Russian youth circa 1973, enamored of jeans and rock ‘n’ roll and fueled by no urgent purpose, slide toward disillusionment as the Soviet Union drifts toward dissolution in vet director Karen Shakhnazarov’s evocative period piece “The Vanished Empire.” Unsentimental, almost antiheroic snapshot of a disaffected lost generation never billboards its end-of-a-civilization vibe, though that vibe does color its bittersweet nostalgia over youth wasted on the young. Bowing July 10 at Gotham’s Quad Cinema, the Kino release may be too understated to make immediate arthouse waves but will likely linger long in DVD archival memory.
Only two things interest 18-year-old Sergei (impressive newcomer Aleksandr Lyapin): picking up girls and getting drunk with pals. Born into a family of intellectuals, Sergei has developed a talent for indolent self-sabotage, refusing to even use his brains. His best friend, Kostya (Ivan Kupreyenko), son of diplomats and a seasoned traveler to the West, only feels contempt for everything Russian, while Styopa (Yegor Baranovsky) declares himself happy with his lot, as much through cowardice as conviction.
Sergei’s single-minded pursuit of pleasure and/or oblivion is temporarily sidetracked when he falls for sweet, serious, beauteous blonde Lyuda (Lidiya Milyuzina), who responds to his suddenly tongue-tied charm. But Sergei, who’s stronger on setup than follow-through, constantly disappoints, his fear of commitment to a belief, an enterprise or a woman apparently stronger than his attraction. He’s only able to measure the price of non-involvement after the choice has passed him by.
Shakhnazarov’s tenure as head of Mosfilm has allowed him to lavishly finance his oddball historical bent — already apparent in the 1920s-set “Jazzmen” and continuing through the time-shifting surrealist satire “Zero City,” the kaleidoscopic tapestry of “Day of the Pale Moon” and the murderous turn-of-the-century splendor of “Rider of Death.” His dry, often sardonic films may lack the emotional depth of Alexander Sokurov’s, but they convey an almost mystical sense of the vast cultural sweep of the Russian empire.
In a time-transitional sequence, Sergei treks to the ancient City of the Wind, the only surviving remains of the Khorezm civilization discovered by his free-spirited archeologist grandfather (Armen Dzhigarkhanyan). The ruins appeared to Sergei earlier in a marijuana-induced hallucination, and now, standing amid the ruins looking out over the desert, he experiences a wordless epiphany that, falling into a 35-year narrative gap between the earlier scenes and a modern-day epilogue, eerily bridges past and present.
The contemporary coda features a brief, awkward reunion of the two surviving friends who haven’t seen each other in decades, as an unseen Sergei and an unrecognizable Styopa bemoan the state of the union.