Thursday, July 09, 2009

Shakhnazarov’s Vanished Empire

For the chronically unambitious Sergey Narbekov, the late Brezhnev years were the glory days. With academia preoccupied with propaganda and jobs tightly regulated, he did not have to worry very much about studying or working. Instead, he is largely free to pursue girls and black market blue jeans in Karen Shakhnazarov’s oddly nostalgic The Vanished Empire, which opens tomorrow in New York.

“The history of the Communist Party is no laughing matter,” young Narbekov is told during a dressing down from his professor. That’s for sure. However, as the grandson of a respected archeologist, Narbekov is a child of moderate privilege, who gets away with quite a bit. In his first year at the Moscow Pedagogical Institute, Narbekov has been majoring in girls, even hooking-up mid-lecture. Yet to his dismay, his charm only takes him so far with Lyuda Beletskaya, a pretty transfer student.

Everyday life in Empire does not look like much fun. There is constant queuing for scarce household items, including vodka. Somehow though, as seen through Narbekov’s eyes, it seems like a carefree time of little or no responsibility. Of course, nothing lasts forever. He starts to learn a few life lessons from the virtuous Beletskaya, and eventually faces a harsh dose of reality within his immediate family. Still, he seems to become even more aimless and apathetic, traveling extensively in the Republics despite his lack of resources.

Given its wistful tone and drably realistic recreation of the period, Empire’s verdict on the Communist Era seems quite ambiguous. Sure, people could not get enough alcohol or buy rock & roll albums. Frankly, the level of medical care does look so great either. Still, people did not have to work so hard—at least Narbekov and his cronies did not have to.

As the brooding collegiate player, Alexander Lyadin’s performance often seems to miss the mark. While Narbekov trades on his rakish charisma, Lyadin conveys a self-indulgent smugness that is far from endearing. However, as his on-again-off-again girlfriend, Lidia Milyuzina brings a refreshing vitality to the film.

Production designer Lyudmila Kusakova renders early 1980’s Moscow with time-capsule exactness, filling the streets with crummy Trabants and the flats with snowy televisions that only seem to pick-up speeches by the comrade General Secretary. Unfortunately, later scenes in the Uzbekistan have a surreal quality that clashes with the prior gritty tone of the film.

If you were somewhat connected and largely oblivious to the crimes of the Soviet regime, like Narbekov, you probably could look back at your coming-of-age years with some fondness. Shakhnazarov skillfully immerses viewers in the milieu of the evil empire at its height, but its story of angst-ridden young love is fairly standard stuff. While it is an interesting viewing experience, Empire will probably leave non-Russophile viewers a bit cold. It opens tomorrow (7/10) in New York at the Quad.