Mother Nina Usatova Vera Evdokia Ghermanova Brother Alexander Balnev Village Head Petr ZaichenkiWith: Alexander Peskov, Vladimir lin.
Showing at Venice after its preem in Montreal, where it won a special mention , “Moslem” is a lively quality comedy based on a striking idea — a young soldier returns home from seven years in an Aghan prison camp as a devout convert to Islam. In an atmosphere of menacing farce, helmer Vladimir Khotinenko views postperestroika Russia through the fresh, startled eyes of his young hero. Arthouses still interested in new Russian cinema should give this one a careful look.
Even before camera frames Kolya (Evgency Mironov) trodding home, we see a Russian Orthodox priest gliding over the fields of an unspoiled natural wilderness. This seemingly eternal land has really undergone profound changes, as will soon be apparent.
Kolya’s mother (Nina Usatova), a hard-working peasant in a muddy village, faints when the TV announces her son has been found and returned to Russia. Even Kolya’s pugnacious brother (Alexander Baluev) buries the hatchet for a good weep. The town’s hysterical greetings soon turn to dismay, however, when Kolya refuses a healthy shot of vodka, pulls out his prayer rug and asks to be called Abdullah from now on.
The hardest thing for the convert is keeping his temper and turning the other cheek at provocation. He lets himself be dragged into several slam-bang knockdown fights with his brother, who like the rest of the town doesn’t cotton to his new religion. Kolya’s old girlfriend, Vera (Evdokia Ghermanova), a free spirit with imagination, is the only one who accepts him for what he is, but here sex poses a moral problem.
A stranger in his own land, Kolya observes the new world that has burgeoned in the last seven years with surprise and scorn. Perestroika, for example, has brought free enterprise to the village, exemplified by a corrupt mayor (Petr Zaichenko) who has come back from Moscow in a helicopter with a suitcase full of dollars, presumably after selling the peasants’ land to someone. Kolya’s oddity is that he has remained outside the scramble for money.
County bumpkin humor, the heart and soul of East European village films, adds interesting tension to the underlying seriousness of the tale. This story about faith and the search for God has a haunting sincerity that surfaces from time to time.
The image of Kolya praying in a field of wildflowers possesses a strange lyricism, like the eerie lake where swimmers keep drowning. According to legend , there is a sunken church at the bottom, and anyone who reaches its cupola will be born again sinless. Cinematographer Alexei Rodionov (“Go and See,” “Orlando”) has a lot to do with creating, the film’s spiritual landscapes, in contrast to the dirty, miserable village.
Only false note is a mysterious nemesis who appears out of the blue, gunning for Kolya. A rather transparent plot device, this figure comes in handy to wrap the story, but is otherwise irritatingly unbelievable.
Cast is well used. Mironov, clearly an up-and-comer, is all soul and shellshocked reactions. Ghermanova delivers a kinky perf as his free wheeling ex, who likes to skinny-dip at dawn. For her role as Kolya’s bighearted mom, Usatova won a best actress nod at this year’s Sochi fest.