Coming from Russian maverick Aleksey Fedorchenko, the words “based on actual events” form a less concrete promise than they do from most filmmakers; few have demonstrated such a remarkable facility for fabricated folklore. It’s difficult, then, to pinpoint the precise dividing line between fact and fancy in “Angels of Revolution,” a challengingly opaque but undeniably arresting meditation on the Kazym Rebellion of the 1930s, which saw indigenous Siberian tribes taking a dignified stand against Soviet cultural collectivization. Weaving together blunt political rhetoric, naive traditional theater and arch sketch-based satire — equal parts Sergei Parajanov and Roy Andersson, yet wholly itself — the resulting tapestry matches 2012’s “Celestial Wives of the Meadow Mari” for density, daring and probable divisiveness. As with that festival curio, the international distributors who stepped forward for Fedorchenko’s 2009 breakout feature, “Silent Souls,” may sit this “Revolution” out.
A predominant, paradoxical tone of solemn whimsy is set by a pre-credits sequence that also establishes the film’s affinity for performance within performance: In the spring of 1934, a group of native Khanty schoolchildren wearing raccoon masks play out a bitterly allegorical political skit, only to be unceremoniously disrupted by the very target of their satire, as the Red Army launches its strategy of violent suppression. Presented without historical context or editorialization, the scene kicks things off with a chill, but viewers unfamiliar with the history at hand will take some time to figure out the exact nature of the unrest.
Fedorchenko doesn’t clarify matters by subsequently rewinding the timeline a couple of decades, resuming with the first of six chapters named after the film’s principal characters: a sextet of urban Russian bohemians led by the charismatic, chicly bobbed Polina (Daria Ekamasova). This structural device proves a bit of a red herring, since the chapters aren’t really marked by alternating individual perspectives. Indeed, none of Polina’s five male colleagues — a filmmaker, a composer, an architect, a sculptor and a theater director — emerges as an especially distinct character. Rather, they function in the film as they do in the narrative — as a balanced performance troupe on a curious cultural mission, one that sees them abandon the city lights for the remote wilderness surrounding Siberia’s Ob River.
There, they are tasked with forging lines of communication between the Soviet administration and two native populations — the Khanty and the Nenets — so hostile to Russian influence that they believe any such interaction to be forbidden by their gods. The irony, of course, is that these offbeat artists are themselves dissidents after a fashion; their objective is not to convert the locals to the Soviet cause, but to get them to”hail the genius of art.” Meanwhile, the government builds the so-called Kazym Cultural Base to bring these forest-dwellers round to the idea of more structured community living: Art, we realize, is being exploited as a gateway to cultural hegemony.
That description might imply a more linear approach to narrative than anything Fedorchenko has in mind: “Angels of Revolution” boasts an intuitive structure that marches very much to the strum of its own balalaika. Singular images and vivid vignettes abound, from a brilliantly deadpan demonstration of how a church may be converted into the “modern temple” of a crematorium — just replace the steeple with a streamlined smokestack — to a “Supremacist Painting Exhibition” heavy on blank red canvases. The helmer’s routine preoccupation with communal and creative ritual holds fast here, yet it’d take substantial research to separate his own droll inventions from genuinely replicated traditions. Polina Schneider herself is a verifiable historical figure, though as played with comically tart severity by Ekamasova, she’s very much a paid-up citizen of Planet Fedorchenko.
Whatever its degree of verisimilitude, this is a headily indulgent vision of the past, one in which Fedorchenko’s anarchic resistance to conventional form or feeling is in sympathetic sync with the characters’ battle to preserve their own ways of being, and seeing. That shouldn’t make “Angels of Revolution” immune to accusations of unevenness or overreaching. A couple of sequences here merely confound without any visible poetic payoff, and while the film is as immaculately composed and designed as auds have come to expect from Fedorchenko, its highs don’t quite equal those of “Celestial Wives of the Meadow Mari” for sheer pastoral beauty.
It’s still a pleasure to watch as a feat of construction, however. Fedorchenko shares production design duties with Artyom Khabibulin, and they keep the film’s interior and exterior environments sparsely but tellingly coded with artistic and political signifiers — from a range of lovingly wrought, seemingly Steampunk-inspired gewgaws to a simple profusion of looking-glasses in the woods. The director’s regular d.p. Shandor Berkeshi is in on the game, frequently lighting and framing scenes with subtle distortions that withhold or reveal onscreen information as required. One particularly artful scene sees film footage projected onto a cloud of smoke, which could itself be the most appropriate way to view this shape-shifting original.