Russian Film Symposium event focuses on subjects once taboo

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The bizarre beginning of "Private Parts" wastes no time living up to its title: A knot of dignified mourners is gathered around an open coffin on a conveyor belt just before the trip of the trigger -- and of the coffin -- to cremation. When the shot shifts from eye-level to overhead, we see the deceased, a handsome young man, lying serenely and completely naked for his exit.

How he got there is an erotic mystery not to be unraveled till the end of Wednesday night's film in the 16th annual Russian Film Symposium, whose "Gendering Genre" theme provides a rare chance for curious Yankees to see how cutting-edge Russian cinema is now handling the once-taboo subjects of sex and sexuality.

In recent years, domestic films have become more popular than American ones in Russia, where the dominant genres tend to be romantic comedies (set in Moscow or St. Petersburg) and gritty dramas (set in the provinces). That genre split comes with a gender split: emotional rom-coms preferred by the ladies, action violence by the guys.

Presented by the University of Pittsburgh and Pittsburgh Filmmakers under the stalwart leadership of Vladimir Padunov, the symposium brings noted Russian film scholars and critics here from Russia, Britain and the U.S. with morning film screenings and roundtable panels on the Pitt campus and four major public screenings, 7:30 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday, at the Filmmakers' Melwood Screening Room, Oakland:


Wednesday: "Intimate [Private] Parts" (3.5stars, 80 min.): This scandalous seriocomedy by husband-wife team Natasha Merkulova and Aleksei Chupov was banned for theatrical distribution in Russia -- the best promotional aid, of course, for a movie exploring the difference between public and private sexuality on the theory that our "intimate parts" -- normally kept covered and shameful -- only become really intimate when shared with others.

Photographer Ivan (Yuri Kolokolnikov) shoots shocking close-ups of men's and women's genitals, enlarged and exhibited. While being photographed, his models reveal more about their sex lives than he really wants or needs to know. That's the occupational hazard of this latter-day "Blow-Up" artiste -- who, BTW, is the guy in the coffin.

Meanwhile, matronly Ludmila (Iulia Aug), chairwoman of the local Public Morality Committee, has her own occupational hazard: She is seriously oversexed -- deeming Ivan's lascivious photos to be porn, even as she buys bushels of batteries for her bedroom vibrator.

Prohibition of obscenity/sexual deviancy leads to heightened fascination with it, despite the dubious ministrations of a smug shrink who prescribes abstinence for others while privately cruising for prostitutes himself. His client Aleksei (Nikita Tarasov) is told to overcome lust with disgust by focusing on the monumentally large, unattractive woman Albina -- but the result is a victory for lust. Eva (Yekaterina Shcheglova) and Sergei (played by director Chupov) and a cute circus magician indulge in an unlikely menage a trois that only worsens her maternity urge (she keeps a secret log of sonograms with the names of her unborn babies).

Decreasing birth rates, more childless families, growing LGBT agitation all threaten the nation. Sex, like Ivan's genital-photo exhibits, has become a major Russian political battlefield. In the good old days, he complains, a conquering male just dragged the female to bed, "but now we have to care about your orgasms." Ludmila's committee notes a "9.7 percent annual drop in our moral level" (helpfully visualized in a graph).

Could such naughty, nasty, black-comic material have materialized during the Soviet era? Never in a million collective years.


Thursday: "The Convoy" (2stars, 81 min.): At the outset of director-writer Aleksei Mizgirev's heavy psychodrama, army captain Ignat (Oleg Vasilkov) savagely beats up a group of men who've been chasing him. The violence mounts when he is ordered to find and return two deserters and the money they stole.

In the vigilantism and corruption of Russia's current day, the police are as lawless as the criminals, and nothing matters but money. In the prisons and scummy train stations of his habitat, Ignat lives by his own rules, guilt-ridden by the death of his daughter and subject to recurring fits of rage. "I'm not going to apologize," he keeps repeating, as one of his captured fugitives commits suicide and the other keeps telling the same unfunny jokes -- assuming the role of clown in a doomed effort to divert others from aggression.

It's all a painfully brutal and overbearing business -- a "man's film" for and about men who feel no physical but lots of psychological pain.


Friday: "Break-Up Habit" (2.5stars, 85 min.): Ekaterina Telegina's Hollywood-style rom-com stars gorgeous Alena Konstantinova as Eva, freshly graduated from MGU with a new job, new friends and sweetly devoted new boyfriend Denis. They even brush their teeth together. But soon enough, she fears a mundane married life with kids and no adventure. In search of someone more exciting, she dumps him for ... how much time do you have? ... first Yaroslav, the hot musician; then Maxim, the rich and richly unfaithful businessman; next, Fabio, the Italian chef-chauvinist, followed by a superstar in the sack, etc.

Contrary to Neil Sedaka, breaking up is so easy to do; it's an unbreakable habit. There are some good funny moments, as when Eva wakes up after a night's debauch with the first words "Who are you?" -- to the girl, not boy, in bed next to her. Childlike animated drawings punctuate the proceedings, as do sappy, syrupy Parlotones songs.

Our fickle, faithless heroine is a pastiche of stock heroines from past chick flicks, TV sitcoms and Jane Austen novels. Eva's blog about her relationship woes goes viral on the Internet. The film is full of rampant, unintentionally hilarious subtitle errors. Is it a real rom-com or a parody? I don't know. I only know that when your lover keeps texting while you're talking, it's over.


Saturday: "To Live [Living]" (3.5stars, 120 min): Director-writer Vassily Sigarev's immensely powerful and original film is a tragic triptych on coping with the sudden loss of loved ones.

Punk-slacker Grishka (Iana Troianova) happily calls herself and her fiance Anton (Aleksei Filimonov -- oddly nicknamed Mama) "mental" -- until their Orthodox wedding ceremony is followed by his brutal murder. Galia (Olga Lapshina), an alcoholic struggling to prove she's a fit mother, thought she won back custody of her two girls -- or are they still alive? Young Artem (Aleksei Pustovoitov) has an abusive mother and stepdad who call him a "retard" for staring out the window, longing for his lost father. Mr. Sigarev's interwoven plots contain long hypnotic scenes of hallucinatory denial: Anton appears as a corpse-groom, Galia's twins start breathing in their coffins on the way to the cemetery. The director depicts those elements of real horror -- rivaling King's and Kubrick's "The Shining" -- with chilling, unsentimental indifference.

Shot in and around the ominous landscape of Suvorov with strange images of death (a river like Styx connects to the hell of a hydroelectric station), Mr. Sigarev's trio of tales feature an eerie guitar-chord score by Pavel Dodonov and profoundly stark cinematography and set design.

As in a Beckett play filled with non sequiturs, nobody ever listens or responds to anybody else's wrenching confessions here. It's a grim-and-grimmer descent into three different hells -- a memorable meditation on thanatology reminding us that, no matter how common or universal human loss is, it must ultimately be suffered in isolation.

All films are in Russian with English subtitles and would carry an R rating for sex and nudity. Admission is $8, $7 for seniors, $4 for Pitt and Art Institute students. Information:

Post-Gazette film critic emeritus Barry Paris:

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