Russian father-and-son drama “Papa,” helmed by its own topliner Vladimir Mashkov, has the sort of hammy histrionics, button-pushing sentimentality and glitzy period trappings that pic’s motherland will love, as evinced by audience award win at Moscow fest. Star’s name plus Jewish characters and Holocaust subplot could spell distribution prospects beyond Russia, but even the most soft-hearted Semitophilic auds might wince at the hokey ethnic caricatures displayed here, the likes of which haven’t been seen since the days when Yiddish theater was wowing them in Petrograd.
Film’s core story, adapted from the Moscow Khudozhestveni Theater stage production “Sailor’s Silence” by relatively little-known scribe Alexander Galich, is a variation on that favorite Russian and Jewish literary theme, the strife between fathers and sons. Nudging auds to read this as a modern myth, pic’s patriarch is the Biblically named Abraham Schwartz (Mashkov). A penny-pinching warehouse owner, he lives in the Ukrainian schtel of Tolchyin in the 1920s.
A despot in dirty clothes, Abraham forces his only son David to practice the violin incessantly, dreaming that some day he’ll hear his offspring play in a bolshoi auditorium. But sulky David (played by Andrei Rozendent first, and Egor Beroev when the character grows up) would rather go out and play chicken on the train tracks with his buddies. To get revenge on his father, David steals items from his beloved postcard collection to gamble with. This provokes a drunken physical attack from the old man that turns to tears in a ripe bit of scenery-chewing from Mashkov.
Jumping abruptly to Moscow circa 1939, David has become the musical prodigy his father envisaged, knocking the red socks off his comrades. Abraham, who hasn’t been in contact with his son in years, arrives by train but is too late to see David perform. In pic’s drawn-out, clunkily edited midsection, Abraham slowly makes his way across town to David’s dorm. David, however, is ashamed of his dad’s bumpkin ways and ghetto threads. A subplot, about a fellow student’s musical career being ruined when the father he won’t denounce is sentenced to a labor camp for political crimes, provides heavy-handed counterpoint.
Gears crunch loudly as third distinct act opens in 1944 on a medical train, where David, now a Red Army soldier, lies injured. Abraham’s fate seems almost cursorily explained away in voiceover, until supernatural forces bring him back for a reconciliation scene and protracted flashback of him boarding a train to a death camp, which, in its restraint, is the most sensitively handled sequence in the film.
“Papa” avoids looking like a play plonked straight onto the screen. If anything, its canvas is so fit to burst with ornate sets, lavish props (like full-scale steam trains) and hundreds of extras, that some of the main cast members seem to be waving their arms and shouting their lines to get noticed. Design fans of Soviet kitsch will find diversion ogling the ornate ’30s lamp fixtures and propaganda banners in the background.
Although the normally dashing Mashkov (star of Pavel Chukhrai’s “The Thief”) tries for character actor status here with ugly greasy hair and a bird’s nest on his chin, egotism nevertheless shines through with a chest-beating, look-at-me perf, even as the director in him tries to throw the spotlight on the rest of the workmanlike ensemble.
Beroev may look strikingly like a Russian John Cussack, but his David lacks charisma, even if his bow twiddling looks impressively realistic. In physical terms alone, “Papa’s” casting is top notch: Rozendent and Beroev are dead ringers for each other, as are the two actresses (Olga Miroshnikova and Kseniya Bespalova) playing Hannah, a girl from the ghetto David meets again in Moscow.
Like many a thesp-turned-helmer before him, Mashkov’s direction is over fussy with the camera moving around unnecessarily as if nervously trying to avert accusations of staginess. (All that tracking kept a bunch grips busy for weeks.) Nonetheless, lush-looking production looks like it got its backers’ money’s worth from its rumored hefty (for a Russian film) budget, with every kopek visible on screen.