They're not John, Paul and Ringo, but Nadia, Masha and Katia -- aka Pussy Riot -- are now among the most famous rockers in the world. In "Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer," they also appear to be the bravest.

They’re not John, Paul and Ringo, but Nadia, Masha and Katia — aka Pussy Riot — are now among the most famous rockers in the world. In “Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer,” they also appear to be the bravest. Helmers Mike Lerner and Maxim Pozdorovkin, having turned their docu portrait around in seemingly record time, don’t quite get to the issues behind the trio’s infamous performance at the historic Christ the Savior Cathedral in Moscow last year, but the young women’s vulnerability and defiance make for stirring viewing. Theatrical is a possibility, given the notoriety of the case against them in Russia and its ongoing relevance.

Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Maria Alyokhina and Yekaterina Samutsevich, clad in jumpers and pastel ski masks, leapt onto the altar of the famed cathedral in Moscow on Feb. 21, 2012, gyrating, howling vulgar lyrics and being promptly assaulted by security personnel. An act of both conceptual art and political protest, the “crime” was intended as a condemnation of what is perceived as Vladimir Putin’s co-option of both the Russian Orthodox Church and Kirill I, the primate of Russia, who is perceived by many as a collaborator with Putin’s repressive regime.

The history of Russia and the Orthodox Church is knotty; try as they might, the Soviets never quite killed religion in Russia, even though they demolished some churches — notably Christ the Savior, shown, in a 1931 film clip, being reduced to rubble (and the site turned into a public swimming pool). Since the fall of Russian communism, the church has been rebuilt, and as many observers note, Putin’s emphasis on nationalism can only be helped by the institution’s imprimatur. Which is what made Pussy Riot’s assault on the cathedral so appalling to some, and so eloquent to others.

While much of the docu is concerned with the court case against the three, the film makes some graceful visual statements — notably the aerial shots of Moscow, whose architecture is made beautiful only by its churches. What follows is anarchic editing, flashes of musicvid-style imagery and scenes of the women’s preparations for their Christ the Savior concert, alternating with interviews with the women after their arrests for hooliganism and “violating the right to worship” of those inside the cathedral.

“Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer” portrays the entire episode as an act of intellectual pranksterism, while being well aware that such an extreme response by Putin’s government — Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina are serving two-year prison terms; Samutsevich’s sentence was commuted — demonstrates a profound national insecurity. Had the trio been left alone, they would have been a local curiosity. Instead, they’re global.

Lerner and Pozdorovkin don’t have huge amounts of material to work with — the entire case, from “crime” to sentencing, took less than a year. So they embellish with biographical portraits of the three women, which creates an odd dichotomy: In providing their histories, which include divorced parents and the death of one’s mother, are the directors unintentionally suggesting a pathology behind their so-called antisocial behavior? It seems so. Also, providing the life stories of their subjects overemphasizes their personal importance to a degree that, one suspects, the subjects themselves would balk at.

Pussy Riot is a band of self-aware provocateurs (their slogans include “Kill All Sexists,” “Kill All Conformists” and “Kill All Putin-ness”). The three seem unimpressed when told Madonna has dedicated a song to them during a concert; they’re far more interested in launching remarkably articulate defenses of themselves before the Russian court, where the verdict always seems a fait accompli. The brutality of the Moscow police toward pro-Pussy protestors, the rage of pro-Orthodox hate groups (“Orthodoxy or Death,” one T-shirt reads) and the attitude of Putin himself during a TV interview indicate a society in turmoil — or, at least, one in fear of free expression.

Tech credits are good. Esteban Uyarra’s editing not only brings chaotic elements together coherently but finds the right rhythm to the story.

Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer

U.K.-Russian Federation

Production

A Roast Beef Prods. presentation. Produced by Mike Lerner, Maxim Pozdorovkin. (International sales: Goldcrest Films Intl., London.) Executive producers, Martin Herring, Havana Marking, Maxyne Franklin, Nick Fraser, Kate Townsend, Nick Quested, Christina Willoughby. Directed by Mike Lerner, Maxim Pozdorovkin.

Crew

Camera (color), Antony Butts; editor, Esteban Uyarra; music, Simon Russell, Pussy Riot; associate producer, Xenia Grubstein. Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (competing), Jan. 18, 2013. Running time: 87 MIN.

With

Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Maria Alyokhina, Yekaterina Samutsevich. (Russian dialogue)

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