Merrily skewering the sanctities of Russian hearth, home and military service, tightly scripted, sharply designed tragicomedy “A Stoker” from Alexei Balabanov is a deeply cynical allegory about an Afghan war vet who fuels the furnaces of a suburban St. Petersburg apartment building and doesn’t question the particulars of just what is being burned. Voted best domestic film of 2010 by Russian film critics, it shows the maverick helmer in prime form, playing with ironic contrast. Harsh and disturbing, but still a lot of fun, pic will continue to make fests rounds with arthouse and ancillary creating heat in select territories.
Concussed during his military service and never completely recovered, retired Major Skryabin (the recently deceased Mikhail Skryabin, a Yakut theater actor whose credits include Balabanov’s “Cargo 200” and “The River”) lives like a hermit in a cramped boiler room. There, in between shoveling coal into the fiery maw of three hellishly blazing furnaces, he is slowly typing a story about Russian oppression of the Yakuts (an ethnic group from Northeastern Siberia).
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From time to time, the distracted stoker receives visits from former comrade-in-arms Misha (Alexander Mosin), now a wealthy contract killer for the mob. Misha comes bearing gifts – and to cremate his victims. Meanwhile, the Major’s comely daughter Sasha (Aida Tumutova) and Misha’s pudgy offspring Masha (Anna Korotaeva) share a fur sales business and — unbeknownst to each other — the sexual favors of Misha’s mute sniper associate Bison (Yuri Matveev).
One day, a corpse on the way to the furnace loses a familiar-looking shoe. Soon after, the Major sadly comes to his senses and once again dons his uniform.
Set in the winter of 1995, “A Stoker” marks Balabanov’s return to the dog-eat-dog Russia of the late 20th century after soulful 1917 period piece “Morphia.” The literal and metaphorical decay of the country that he mocked in “Cargo 200” has become institutionalized yet more sanitized. Now dead bodies aren’t left around to rot.
Much time is spent following the characters as they slip-slide on snowy paths, their dogged determination contrasting poignantly with their lack of control in a world where life is cheap.
Like Quentin Tarantino, Balabanov is known for his ironic use of pop music. Here, catchy tunes by cult pop composer and singer Valeriy Didyulya (aka DiDuLa) blithely drive the action.
Stylized performances (with shame-free nudity on the distaff side) hit the mark. Shot on 35mm in elegantly simple setups, the assembly is topnotch.