The struggles of dissident writers in the Soviet Union will likely always remain a key theme of Russian cinema, ripe for ruminating on unappreciated artists in society and the fight for recognition notwithstanding power concentrated in the hands of apparatchiks. Maverick director Alexey German Jr. brings his signature dreamlike vision to the subject with “Dovlatov,” a classically German take on six days in the life of writer Sergei Dovlatov, when the as-yet unrecognized author was trying to get published. Working for the first time with “Ida” cinematographer Lukasz Zal, the director once again delivers enthralling choreographed tracking shots that add a Fellini-esque overlay to straightforward depictions of reality, making the film a visual treat.
However, it clearly caters to an audience who’ll thrill at recognizing a host of references to 20th-century literary giants from Yevtushenko and Mandelstam to Steinbeck and Nabokov. “Dovlatov” might not expect you to know all about Dovlatov the man or his writings, and it’s easy to simply be mesmerized by German’s exceptional talent for stage blocking and camera movements, yet while there’s much here to appreciate, the film lacks the power of “Under Electric Clouds” despite being his most emotionally approachable work to date. To boot, Dovlatov’s popularity within Russia has yet to be replicated outside, where he’s largely mentioned simply as an important writer friend of Joseph Brodsky, notwithstanding frequent appearances in The New Yorker magazine. That perception won’t help international sales beyond expected, and limited, Euro art houses.
Dovlatov (Serb actor Milan Marić) himself narrates part of the story, beginning Nov. 1, 1971, when the relative liberality of the early Brezhnev years was replaced by an increasingly hardline ideological push. Writers refusing to stick to championing factory workers and the glories of Socialist Man, or those introducing notes of irony in their coverage of communist celebrations, were censored or unemployed. Like many of his peers, Dovlatov was reduced to pounding out articles for a factory magazine since he’s refused membership in the Writers Guild and can’t get his poems and stories published. It’s natural that bosses would get him to write a feature on the little movie the factory commissioned to commemorate the anniversary of the Revolution, in which workers dressed as literary giants praise Soviet achievements. Only Dovlatov can’t treat it seriously, and his superiors aren’t happy.
While finding comfort in the company of intellectual comrades such as Brodsky (Artur Beschastny), listening to jazz (lovingly evoked) and exchanging stories of frustration, Dovlatov is also coping with a personal life out of whack: He and wife Lena (Helena Sujecka) are contemplating divorce, and he’s currently living with his supportive mother, though he regularly sees daughter Katya (Eva Gerr). Over the next few days, each signaled like a chapter heading, Dovlatov begins the morning with an uncongenial assignment, tries to make the necessary connections to get into the Guild, and ends the evenings in a jazz-filled literary and artistic salon with friends.
He’s thrown a bone by a literary magazine editor (Hanna Sleszynska) who tells him to write a celebratory story on subway builder and poet Anton Kuznetsov (Anton Shagin, “Hipsters”) — “pure and positive prose” — but both men are moved by the accidental discovery of children’s skeletons from World War II, and puff pieces seem irrelevant. Better to head to a park where a black market in banned literature thrives, though crackdowns are happening there as well.
German ends the film after six days, which is eight years before Dovlatov managed to emigrate to the U.S. with his family (he died in 1990 at only 48, just one year after his works were finally published in his home country). The sense one gets of the man does him tribute: warm-hearted, intelligent without being pretentious, justifiably angry without feeling complete defeat. German captures the world of the Leningrad intellectual with great attention to detail and as usual takes the narrative at his own unhurried pace. Much of the international cast is dubbed in a relatively seamless manner, and Maric, in his first lead role, exudes gentility with physical strength. The script isn’t overladen with poetry recitations (so often deadly in any film), though it does have a sense of repetition.
Even Dovlatov fans will likely agree that the movie’s strength lies in the visuals, both in terms of camerawork and Elena Okopnaya’s excellent production design. German has perfected a certain Russian knack for tracking shots that become immersed with the characters before gliding away alongside them, creating a unique graphic rhythm. His pictorial sense is, as ever, a strong suit, playing with filters that lighten scenes to a dreamlike haze of memory before turning warmer and clearer.