A Russian grifter (Konstantin Khabensky) fleeces foreigners by introducing them to ordinary folk hired to pose as long lost relatives in director Pavel Loungine’s bawdy, bubbly black comedy “Roots.” Con-driven plot resonates with the helmer’s current project, an adaptation of Gogol’s “Dead Souls” for Russian TV, but has contempo sizzle and wit that’ll click with local auds, plus a Jewish flavor that could give it niche legs abroad and entice interest from Semitic fests. Preeming at the revamped event in Sochi, now focusing exclusively on Russkie pics, “Roots” wrapped itself around three awards, including the fest’s top prize.
A shifty scarecrow of a figure in a Hawaiian shirt, Eduard “Edik” Letov has built a lucrative biz out of introducing wealthy Russian ex-pats to relations back in the Motherland they either have never met or not seen in years. Too lazy to find the foreigners’ real relatives, more often than not Letov pays locals in a small towns to pretend to be the needed cousins, siblings or grandparents, and put up the visiting “kin” for a week’s visit.
His latest cadre of clients are looking for people left behind in the Southern Russian village of Golotvin, but since the town (a Jewish shtetl) was razed during WWII, he hires co-conspirators in the nearby burg of Golutvin. The visitors include elderly Canadian-national Simon (Austrian thesp Otto Tausig) coming to meet his long lost sister Esther (Esther Gorintin, the matriarch from “Since Otar Left”) and her family. This subplot develops a touching resonance as the two fake relatives develop a genuine, familial rapport.
Meanwhile, Simon sets out to seduce his prim translator Regina (Natalia Koliakanova), and Israeli gangster Barukh (Leonid Kanevsky, splendidly wily) comes equipped with his mother’s remains in a mini-coffin to lay her in her native soil, which someone mysteriously keeps digging up. Andrew (Miglen Mirtchev), another visitor, has a secret agenda of his own for meeting his elderly relative.
Script by Gennady Ostrovsky relies on quickfire exchanges and linguistic nuance that will need sensitive subtitling to put the material across abroad. Screenplay’s strong suit is a whimsical, Slavic sense of the absurd: For example there’s a subplot about a bathhouse masseur, who is convinced his pet carp was once a cosmonaut.
Although largely an ensemble piece, thesp Khabensky, a ubiquitous presence in Russian films these days, steals the show with his shambling, sleazeball Letov, demonstrating excellent, previously underexposed comic timing as well as a knack for deadpan and slapstick.
Likewise, helmer Lounguine, known outside Russia mostly for more sober fare like “Luna Park” and “Tycoon,” makes an exuberant return to comic form not seen since his inebriated farce “The Wedding,” eliciting here rambunctious, noisy turns from his cast.
Tech credits are strong but not brilliant, with the score credited to Mikhail Artatz, Roch Havet and Youval Micenmacher gently egging the mirth along without resorting to overkill. Pacing is a little sluggish in later reels, and could do with some trims. For the record, pic’s Russian title means literally “poor relations,” while French title “Familles a vendre,” displayed in credits of print caught, means “families for sale.” “Roots” is English title a per Sochi catalog.