Soccer, sex, and a world about to be overturned by revolution sound like pretty good ingredients for the second film by Alexey Guerman Jr., whose poignant debut “The Last Train” was a hit on the festival circuit. But “Garpastum,” although vaunting the same knock-out cinematography and stylish anti-drama, fails to raise the emotional temperature. This highly aestheticized entry will be too arty for most soccer fans and disappointing to “Last Train” admirers. Yet it still points to the 29-year-old Guerman as a highly talented director in search of a way to match his keen cinematic instincts with a dramatic story.
“Garpastum” is a Latin word meaning a ball game, and contests were played as far back as ancient China and Sparta. One the eve of World War I, the handsome brothers Andrey (Evgeny Pronin) and Nikolai (Danila Kozlovsky) are passionate about the amateur matches they play on the streets of St. Petersburg. With their pals Shoust (Dmitry Vladimirov) and Fatso (Alexander Bykovsky), they hatch a scheme to buy a playing field. In order to finance it, they start playing for money with workmen, seminarians and anyone else they encounter.
War breaks out, though its effects are slow in being felt. Andrey starts an affair with an eccentric actress from Belgrade, Anitsa (Chulpan Khamatova), who hosts a fashionable salon frequented by writers, musicians and intellectuals. Nikolai, an aspiring doctor like his uncle (Pavel Romanov), becomes infatuated with her sister Vita (Iamze Sukhitashvili). Their world of rowdy, carefree adolescence ends suddenly when two of their friends are killed in senseless violence. But there’s still soccer.
Moving away from the influence of his legendary director-father Alexey Guerman, Guerman Jr. has several things to say in his own post-Perestroika voice. Here, the end of youth is as important as the end of the 19th century. “Time’s river carries off human deeds,” remarks one character — but the film seems to be just paying lip service to the noble sentiments of sadness and melancholy that were the staples of earlier Russian cinema. Despite all the bad things the 20th century has in store for the heroes, they seem basically unfazed by tragedy, and survive to play another day.
The film is constructed as a series of dramatically unconnected set pieces. While this gives it a pleasingly modern feel, it also kills emotional flow. The screenplay by Oleg Antonov and producer Alexander Vaynshteyn also comes to a halt four or five times for long unexciting, painstakingly choreographed soccer matches. It isn’t even clear who wins.
In the end, what seems to matter most to Guerman and his talented d.p. Oleg Lukichov, who also shot his first film, is creating atmosphere through the photography. Graceful camera movements are shot through mist, smoke, fog and rain. Great attention is paid to framing and the composition of figures in depth, to emphasize their isolation in a universe full of tragic portents. Many scenes are so drained of color they are almost monochrome, with the faded look of memory. Yet overall, there is a disconnect between the sophisticated images and what is fundamentally a light-hearted story about boys and soccer.
The male cast, who play good if suspiciously modern-looking soccer, are not at the same level as actors. The muscular Pronin, sexily stripped to the waist in several scenes, is athletic but wooden in a one-note part. It is bothersome that he looks no younger than Khamatova, who keeps referring to herself as an older woman.
The late Pavel Romanov, who played the lead in “The Last Train,” is forceful and original in the role of the boy’s uncle. Most memorable face belongs to young Dmitry Vladimirov as Shoust, a boy from the wrong side of the tracks whose serious expression reflects a tragic depth. Gosha Kutsenko has an eye-catching cameo as the poet Alexander Blok.
Though the action is set in between 1914 and 1918, costumes and haircuts look distinctly later.