The echo chambers between films that developed independently of each other are one of the most intriguing and interesting aspects of programming a film festival. Hence, in the Berlin main competition of 2013, Boris Khlebnikov's Russian miniature A Long and Happy Life mirrored in reverse Gus van Sant's Promised Land, positing a similar subject seen from different sides - the losing battle of rural farmers struggling to make a living against modern industry and business. Mr. Van Sant's film is a clear-eyed piece of thoughtful, doubtful Americana, but Mr. Khlebnikov's work is infused with a very Russian spirit of ominous fatalism, functioning for all intents and purposes as an inverted mirror of Promised Land, equally clear-eyed but much more hopeless and bordeline absurd.

     The title, of course, is meant ironically: relocated city boy Sasha's life is definitely not going to be happy, and possibly neither very long, from the moment he becomes the lone holdout unwilling to sell the piece of land he has been working on unsuccessfully as the leader of a collective farm. Initially willing to sell off to the local oligarchs after all the hardships he and his co-workers have gone through for little or no reward, Sasha (played by Khlebnikov regular Aleksandr Yatsenko) changes his heart after the collective refuses to sell and decides to stick it to the fat cats from Moscow - but eventually finds himself all alone after the initial show of dignity deserts each and every one of the farmers in turn.

     There is something of the western (High Noon does come to mind) both in the narrative structure and in the rural setting: Sasha turns out to be the one moral compass standing fast against the encroaching corruption when everyone else gives up the fight as impossible to win, though he was the most reluctant to join in, even against his own girlfriend Anya (Anna Kotova) who also happens to be the local registrar's secretary. But just as there is something of the western, there is also something of the film noir as Sasha becomes progressively more desperate and lonesome, a haunted, hunted man who embraces the stand he is taking to a very Russian point of no return, in a way he himself would have never thought before. Mr. Khlebnikov's brief, sharp, to the point film - his fifth feature and third in a loose trilogy about modern Russia following 2003's successful debut Roads to Koktebel (co-directed with Alexei Popogrebsky) and 2009's opaquely absurdist Help Gone Mad -  is greatly helped by no-nonsense handling, making good use both of his hand-held camera and of the rough-hewn country buildings and desolate landscapes, with the total absence of soundtrack underlining the fact that, while this is a film, these are serious matters that are being dealt with.

Cast: Aleksandr Yatsenko, Anna Kotova, Vladimir Korobeinikov, Sergei Nasedkin, Yevgeny Sitiy, Inna Sterligova, Aleksandr Alyabiev, Sergei Pestrikov, Gleb Puskepalis, Pavel Kolesnikov, Denis Yatkovsky, Valeri Konstantinov
Director: Boris Khlebnikov
Screenplay: Aleksandr Rodionov, Mr. Khlebnikov
Cinematography: Pavel Kostomarov (colour)
Designer: Olga Khlebnikova
Costumes: Svetlana Mikhailova
Editor: Ivan Lebedev
Producers: Roman Borisevich, Aleksandr Kushaev (Kinokompania Koktebel)
Russia, 2012, 77 minutes

Screened: Berlin Film Festival 2013 official competition advance press screening, Berlinale Palast (Berlin), February 9th 2013


Popular Posts