Moscow fest helps promote local biz

Prexy uses event to bolster distrib, prod'n markets

MOSCOW — Fest prexy Nikita Mikhalkov used the opening of the 27th annual Moscow Intl. Film Festival to highlight progress in local distribution and production markets.

The Oscar-winning helmer (“Burnt by the Sun”) reeled off impressive growth stats: For instance, fact that 1995’s entire B.O. of $8 million was exceeded by “The State Counsellor” (produced by and starring Mikhalkov), released this spring. That’s part of an expected final B.O. $370 million tally for 2005, 20% of which should come from domestic pics. Admissions for 2006 are predicted to hit 100 million, matching the tally for Vladimir Menshov’s 1980 release “Moscow Does Not Believe in Tears” and proving biz is on the rebound after years during the 1990s when the tally was barely 1 million.

It was an upbeat note in an otherwise low-key, compact ceremony, and it found support from Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov, who spoke of Russia’s revival as a “cinema superpower.” Asked by Mikhalkov if Moscow’s government would fund a planned fest center, Luzhkov said yes — though it’s not the first year he’s done so.

Hampered over much of the past decade by funding problems and logistic hiccups, MIFF has returned to greater normality. It’s not stellar by class-A standards, but it’s growing in the right direction.

Of the 17 films in competition, only one is a Russian work, Alexei Uchitel’s “Space as a Premonition.” Whether it achieves honors to match Dmitry Meshkiyev’s “Our Own,” which took three top prizes last year, will be seen at June 26 closure.

Valentin Chernykh, scripter of “Our Own” (and “Moscow Does Not Believe in Tears”), heads fest’s main jury this year, joined by Italian composer Nicola Piovani, Austrian director Ulrich Seidl, Hungarian cinematographer Janos Kende, Russian actress Victoria Tolstoganova and French writer-director Claire Denis.

MIFF programmers, whose work was complicated by management changes in recent months, went to considerable effort to secure Uchitel’s presence (his previous “The Stroll” left fest two years ago without prizes). Uchitel withdrew “Space,” acclaimed in advance by Mikhalkov, from June’s earlier national competition Kinotavr to enable a MIFF debut. Pic catches a Soviet-era mood — specifically 1957, the year of the launch of the country’s first space satellite — and stars Yevgeny Mironov (from helmer’s 2000 Oscar-nominated “His Wife’s Diary”) and Irina Pegova (“The Stroll”).

Competition pics, per tradition, are predominantly European, with 12 films drawn from continent, including opener Italian “The Life I Want” from Giuseppe Piccioni. Not all are exactly new on the fest scene: Thomas Vinterberg’s “Dear Wendy” played Sundance. The lone American entry, Arie Posin’s indie “Chumscrubber” (from a second-generation Russian helmer who will be seeing his motherland for the first time), also bowed there.

Programmer Kirill Razlogov spoke of “cultural diversity” as a theme this year, with works covering the Israel-Palestine situation and other historical conflicts. Controversy may prove closer to home as well: There’s a docu program titled “Fortress Europe,” charting difficulties involved in constructing a new European identity, and memorial evenings devoted to murdered Dutch director Theo Van Gogh.

As last year, second competition program “Perspectives” aims to catch more experimental works. It will be judged by Czech director Juraj Jakubisko, Korea’s Jang Jun-Hwan and Russian actress Elena Safonova. Sole Russian entry there is mini-budget “Dust” from Sergei Loban.

Supporting slots see addition of a “Russian Alternative” program, including this year’s Rotterdam winner, Ilya Khrzhanovsky’s “4”; and the return of popular sidebar “8½ Films,” curated by critic Pyotr Sheppotinik and named after Fellini’s 1963 Moscow prize winner. Latter has local preems for Cannes winner “The Child,” Gus Van Sant’s “Last Days” and Mike Leigh’s “Vera Drake.”

Opening ceremony’s lifetime achievement award went to Hungarian helmer Istvan Szabo, who recalled his first Moscow visit 40 years earlier.

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