The late expatriate Russian author Friedrich Gorenstein, best known internationally as co-writer of the screenplay for Tarkovsky’s original “Solaris,” is becoming a font of source material for Euro filmmakers. Close on the heels of Eva Neymann’s “House With a Turret,” Russian helmer Aleksandr Proshkin’s “Expiation” adapts another Gorenstein story set on the homefront at the close of WWII. As aesthetically striking as it is somewhat emotionally offputting, this strange wartime romance of sorts won a suitably vague artistic achievement award at the Montreal World fest. Further festival play is assured; offshore commercial prospects are iffy.
Like “House,” “Expiation” is directed in such a formalist classic Soviet style it’s easy to mistake it for a film from 50 years ago. Its arrestingly self-conscious compositions, elaborate tracking movements and mercurial tonal shifts, often pitched on the verge of hysteria, all pay tribute to epic Russian cinema of another era, just as Gorenstein saw himself as continuing in a long literary tradition of moral-philosophical inquiry a la Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky.
Yet at the center of “Expiation” is one hell of a bratty adolescent. Sasha (Victoria Romanenko), the very picture of a pert blonde proletarian princess, is sick, sick, sick of deprivation and overcrowding in her southern Russian burg. In her petulant sulking, there’s no sympathy for the sufferings of her mother (Tatiana Yakovenko), who steals food from the Army canteen where she works to feed her; or for the two boarders mom has hidden in their cluttered flat, one of whom Sasha thinks (wrongly) is a traitor to the state. When she’s humiliated at a New Year’s dance, she lets off steam by going to the police and denouncing her entire household for their “crimes.” As they’re thrown in jail, she sheds nary a tear.
By contrast, Sasha worships the late father she’s sure was a war hero, absence making him easy to idealize. Suddenly independent, she transfers this adoration to August (Rinal Mukhametov), a dreamily handsome Army officer who returns from the front to find his Jewish family has been slaughtered by a vicious neighbor the Nazis had empowered as a cop during their occupation; to Sasha, August is a figure of such tragic romanticism that the imagery frequently goes soft-focus when he’s onscreen.
Sasha follows August around like a puppy, eventually working her way into his bed. But whether he’ll keep the 16-year-old around once he snaps out of his grieving stupor is another matter. Likewise, the light at the end of the tunnel after all this hardship proves illusory — a good closing visual joke underlines that the new beginning the characters anticipate is in fact just the start of the Stalin era’s darkest hours.
The ironic layers of perspective Gorenstein likely pulled off in literary form prove trickier to emulate cinematically, though Proshkin (“Cold Summer of 1953,” 2006’s “Dr. Zhivago” mini) exercises considerable bravado in the attempt. In narrative course, as well as style and tone, “Expiation” can seem arbitrary and overwrought, but there’s never a moment when the helmer doesn’t seem fully in command, however eccentric some of his choices may be.
Perfs are pitch-perfect — not least when immature caterwauling is called for — while design and tech contributions are topnotch. The pic is nominally in color, but with a palette mostly bled to near-complete monochrome, the look isn’t far from that of the black-and-white “House With a Turret.” Soundtrack is full of plaintive orchestral dissonances, from Edward Artemyev’s original score as well as excerpts from other composers, notably Vladimir Martyov.