An authentic Cold War curio that milks suspenseful melodrama from the moral/political conflict between Soviet and U.S. navy ships, “Neutral Waters” boasts solid craftsmanship, impressive b&w lensing and frequent touches of unintentionally hokey humor. Result should warm the hearts of daredevil festival and TV programmers.
Made in 1969, pic was promptly banned for its supposedly subversive pacifist content. The restriction was recently lifted following Russian prez Boris Yeltsin’s bestowal of an award for artistic achievement on director Vladimir Berenstein. Helmer was to have attended the pic’s world preem at the Sorrento fest but died of a stroke in Moscow a week prior.
Opening is almost documentary in style, with Mikhail Kirillov’s dynamic location shooting capturing military drills at sea, a commemorative service followed by r&r at a Yugoslav port and homecoming festivities in Moscow.
A brief, relatively uninteresting stretch of shore drama follows, before pic gears up into glorious adventure/meller mode as the Russian ship (“Pride”) crosses paths with an American vessel in neutral waters.
During both parties’ displays of one-upmanship while destroying a stray German mine, a case holding top-secret Soviet papers falls overboard. A young officer dives in after it, and the pic’s second half has him bobbing in the water awaiting rescue as all sorts of memories and fantasies swirl in his head.
These include a synchronized swimming sequence that would make Esther Williams proud, a frolic with dolphins and a rescue by a chiffon-clad maiden. All are set to lush kitsch music by Kirill Molchanov. Vaguely campy tone is echoed elsewhere by a shower scene in which sailors whip each other with birch branches, and twee philosophical exchanges between deck hands draped over a gun barrel.
Also adding to the humor is some disastrous English dialogue from an American sailor (clearly played by a Russian) who picks up the floating officer.