Veteran animator and documaker Andrey Khrzhanovsky’s feature debut, at the age of 69, is a magical, wildly creative fantasia on the life of Russian poet Joseph Brodsky. Seamlessly wedding fiction, docu footage, animation and stills, the helmer crafts an ode not just to Brodsky, but to the society he represented, his values of culture and honesty, and the bittersweet pain of nostalgia: Inspired by a poet, Khrzhanovsky has created his own poetry. Festivals will jump, but the international arthouse scene could also have a winner provided critical kudos pave the way.
Khrzhanovsky has stated that Brodsky’s life was the “creative impulse” for his film, meaning it shouldn’t be seen as a biopic. Or rather, it’s as much a biopic as one of Fellini’s self-referential reveries. At the start, the adult Brodsky (Grigoriy Dityatkovskiy) warns his recollections won’t be linear, and indeed, the conceit of Brodsky sailing back to Russia years after his exile, offering time to muse on his past, is pure fiction. Khrzhanovsky uses the concept as a way of tying together childhood and maturity, and if the pic’s second half is less brimming with flights of whimsy than the first, that, too, is the essence of nostalgia.
His reminiscences begin in 1948, when his father (Sergei Yursky) returns to Leningrad from the clean-up of World War II, bringing presents from the Far East. Father and mother (the great Alisa Freindlich) create a wonderland of familial warmth within their high-bourgeois apartment (shot in color, with black-and-white used for exteriors set in this timeframe). The helmer flawlessly re-creates the very texture of films from the periods covered, shifting as the decades move forward.
As a boy (Artem Smola), Brodsky sees the world through the confident prism of a loving family: Scenes are often shot with a golden glow, illustrating the narrator’s line, “We lived in a city whose color was fossilized vodka.”As a college student, Brodsky becomes political, a stance he maintains through his writings until he’s expelled in 1972.
“A Room and a Half” is unmistakably the work of a mature artist, and it’s the helmer’s absolute mastery of the different formats that makes his work so joyous. Silhouette cutouts reflect pre-Revolutionary elegance, an animated cat appears inside a credenza and musical instruments float across the city skyline, fusing Magritte and Chagall. These and other beautifully juxtaposed scenes reveal Khrzhanovsky’s consummate understanding of editing and rhythm, learned in the classrooms of his teacher Lev Kuleshov.
Some may cry “old-fashioned,” an inevitable response to a film steeped in nostalgia, but the particular yearning of the exile will always be coated in sweetness. Certainly Brodsky’s years of struggle immediately before his expulsion form a minor element of the narrative, but Khrzhanovsky’s interests lie in the poet’s formation, how he represented a breed of intellectual keen on culture and freedom.
Changes in period are reflected in lensing styles, which can mimic Italian neorealism in one scene and early Chabrol in another. Musical choices span Bach, Scriabin and Zarah Leander, each piece attuned to mood and reflecting a broad concept of the human element that underlies, of necessity, civilization.