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Film Review: ‘Bolshoi Babylon’

Acid thrown in the face of the ballet director of Russia's most famous cultural institution exposes a viper's nest of professional jealousies and intrigue.

Sergei Filin, Vladimir Urin, Anastasia Meskova, Maria Allash, Maria Alexandrova, Boris Akimov, Dimitry Medvedev, Alexander Budberg, Roman Abramov, Nikolai Tsiskaridze. (Russian, English dialogue.)

Official Site: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt3505682/

Promising a lot more dirt than it delivers, “Bolshoi Babylon” proves that Russia’s most famous performing-arts institution isn’t just of great value to the Kremlin, it’s like the Kremlin, too, in that the secrets behind its cutthroat internal politics generally stay secret. Nick Read’s docu finds the ballet company rocketed by Ballet Director Sergei Filin’s shocking assault, apparently instigated by a disgruntled dancer. But as it follows the Bolshoi’s anxiety-ridden season following that international scandal, the various significant players interviewed here just hint at myriad underlying problems without being willing to actually spill the ugly truth. Result is inevitably diverting as a well-shot partial peek behind the scenes, but reveals far less than intended. Slated for Stateside broadcast debut on HBO Dec. 14, “Babylon” should attract tube buyers in numerous territories.

As Read (with Mark Franchetti billed as co-director) shoots during the 2013-’14 season, the nearly 250-year-old Bolshoi is operating without key leadership: On Jan. 17, Filin had acid thrown in his face by a masked assailant. To the disbelief of some (but not all) company members, police eventually arrested Pavel Dmitrichenko, a former principal dancer (and son of Bolshoi dancers) who purportedly felt Filin wasn’t giving his girlfriend the parts she merited. (As Filin points out, however, he’s never promoted his own wife out of the ballet corps, either.)

Insiders quickly chose sides that many were on already; Dmitrichenko wasn’t the only dancer who’d felt slighted by casting since Filin (also a former principal dancer) took his post. We see and hear enough from a few, however, to grok that these dancers (who begin rigorous training as early as age 4) are driven, sheltered and single-minded, with often neurotically high expectations and little ability to gracefully accept less. The stakes are very high in what’s by its nature a short, physically punishing career.

As Dmitrichenko goes on trial and Filin continued medical therapies to hopefully save one damaged eye, a “chaotic” company atmosphere gets the General Director fired and replaced with Vladimir Urin. Latter seems a rather humorless administrator who’s happy to let heads roll if he perceives a weak link in the organization. He makes no bones about the fact that bad blood exists between him and Filin (they worked together at the Stanislavsky Theatre, until one left in what the other considered a betrayal) while claiming only to care about his colleague’s job performance. Yet it’s clear that the reformist newcomer views Filin as an adversary, one he’s willing to humiliate in public to assert his own dominance.

As this drama unfolds in Read’s telling, our sympathies lie with the personable, still-shaken Filin. Even so, questions that get raised yet barely addressed should make us ponder the blamelessness of his victimization. There are murmurings about pay-to-play-type bribing in which wealthy patrons literally buy stage time and career advancement for favored dancers. But has Filin been part of that corruption? He angrily denounces the idea as malicious rumor without any substantiating evidence. And no one seems willing to risk their own neck by providing the latter, if indeed it exists.

But then, Read doesn’t get anyone here to level any direct accusations, nor are other apparent “scandals” plaguing the Bolshoi more than alluded to here. For all its promise of gossipy revelations (duly accompanied by some rather cheesy tabloid-TV-style underscoring), “Babylon” actually provides little more than a lot of vague insinuations. Exasperatingly, it doesn’t even offer more detail on the Dmitrichenko affair, not even after the latter (who looks pretty crazy on the courtroom stand) is found guilty of the crime.

If this package winds up seeming more wrapping than content, it’s certainly a good-looking one, with bigscreen-worthy wide-format lensing that glimpses (often from waiting performers’ backstage vantage) numerous ballets — few identified, alas. The Bolshoi’s historic, ongoing importance as a cultural ambassador for Russia is articulated by various observers, including Prime Minister Dimitry Medvedev.

Editorial pacing is brisk, tech contribs are first-rate.

Film Review: 'Bolshoi Babylon'

Reviewed at Toronto Film Festival (TIFF Docs), Sept. 19, 2015. Running time: 86 MIN.

Production: (Documentary — U.K.) An HBO Documentary Films presentation of a Red Velvet Films production in association with Red Box Films, Altitude Film Entertainment, BBC Storyville, in co-production with Bayerischer Rundfunk, Mittelddeutcher Rundfunk, Arte. (World sales: Altitude, London.) Produced by Mark Franchetti. Executive producers, Simon Chinn, Maxim Pozdorovkin. Co-producers, Vera Obolonkina, Vanessa Tovell.

Crew: Directed by Nick Read. Co-director, Mark Franchetti. Camera (color, widescreen, HD), Read; editors, Jay Taylor, David Charap; music, Smith & Elms; music supervisor, Andy Rogers; sound, Vasily Amochkin; sound designers, Simon Elms, Dan Weinberg.

With: Sergei Filin, Vladimir Urin, Anastasia Meskova, Maria Allash, Maria Alexandrova, Boris Akimov, Dimitry Medvedev, Alexander Budberg, Roman Abramov, Nikolai Tsiskaridze. (Russian, English dialogue.)

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