A mournful contemplation of what it sees as the unbridgeable gap between the former Soviet Union and the new Russia, “The Turn of the Century” is replete with grave meanings that are delivered in laborious, obvious ways. Dostoevskian in its dour pessimism, this first film in seven years by Tarkovsky protege Konstantin Lopushansky overflows with such sorrow for the moral blankness it finds in Mother Russia today that it is hard not to sympathize to some degree with so deeply felt an expression of angst. But the film is decidedly heavy going, its symbols and messages advanced with unfortunate bluntness, meaning that even its intended audience on the high art end of the fest and international specialized circuit will have to overlook the cumbersome dramatics to appreciate its insights.
Best known for his 1986 post-apocalyptic “Letters From a Dead Man,” Lopushansky was Tarkovsky’s assistant on “Stalker,” and the influence remains strongly in evidence: The most romanticized figure in “Century,” a dashing poet who has spent time in a prison camp, is even named Andrei and is made up to look very like the late visionary filmmaker. But Tarkovsky’s meanings were never as literal-minded as is everything in this picture, which is manifestly driven by a profoundly felt distress over the direction Lopushansky’s native land has taken in the post-communist period.
Now-and-then are repped here by Olga, a hard-driving, hard-looking journalist who has aggressively embraced the capitalist/consumerist lifestyle since decamping from Moscow to Berlin in 1993, and her mother Marina, who has felt betrayed and “discarded” since Gorbachev’s ouster. After years of estrangement, Olga has persuaded the stubborn but defeated-looking Marina to come for treatment at the Institute of Conscious Dreams, a posh psychiatric clinic in Poland where doctors will “burn” Marina’s memories from her mind, the better for her to adjust to modern times.
Only problem is that Marina doesn’t want to let go of her memories, which are her only comfort. But she submits to some “seances,” as they’re called, which serve to trigger flashbacks to Marina’s youth during the good old days of the Khruschev “thaw” and her big romance with the brilliant Andrei. Also interspersed are glimpses of Marina’s bereft life among other dispossessed when their support system suddenly vanished in the early ’90s, scenes which effectively place the romanticized view of the ’50s in a convincing context.
Unfortunately, the clinic interludes are murky and borderline silly, and Olga’s personality is so abrasive, and her personal life so messy, that it’s easy to see why Marina prefers to escape into her memories and, in the end, return to her home, however miserable it may be. The two women all too broadly symbolize their eras, and the film’s central issues are baldly articulated in a climactic airport argument in which Olga accuses her mother (and, implicitly, her entire generation) of being “commie-Nazi,” while Marina charges her daughter of living without faith, hope or love.
Whether considering the past, present or future, and regardless of one’s sympathies, things are pretty grim all around in Lopushansky’s world view, a fact well reflected in the darkly ominous visuals, deliberate pacing and no-hope ending.