Sunday, November 15, 2009

Russian Film Week ’09: Pete on the Way to Heaven

Petya Makarov lives in a provincial town actually prospering under Stalin’s rule. That is because it services the newly built gulag nearby. Though largely oblivious of such economic concerns, Makarov is probably his community’s most dedicated Communist. He is also the village idiot. It is not a bad life for the Kandalaksha villagers, as long as they do not look over the fence in Nikolai Dostal’s Pete on the Way to Heaven, which screens during the 2009 Russian Film Week in New York.

The year is 1953 and Stalin is not long for the world he terrorized. While Makarov’s fellow villagers might be smarter and worldlier than he, they will be equally devastated by impending demise. Makarov however, is a true believer unencumbered by fear or self-deception. In his enthusiasm, he has adopted the role of militia inspector, enforcing traffic regulations on a volunteer basis. He has the hat but pines for the gun. Wisely though, the local authorities only allow him a wooden surrogate.

There is ugliness to see in the village, for those who bother to look. The Colonel in charge of the work camp personally supplies much of it. Cruel and virulently anti-Semitic, he is married to the attractive (and much younger) director of the local clinic. She seems like a reasonable person, but her advances understandably unnerve her Jewish colleague.

The guileless Makarov can wholeheartedly cast his ballot for the “Communist-Nonpartisan” candidate without recognizing the inherent contradiction. The rest of town has no such excuse. They are living life looking the other way. Based on the glaring foreshadowing of the title, this corrosive environment may well end up costing Makarov dearly.

Egor Pavlov is the perfect picture of innocence, but never gets too cute or unrealistically noble as the dimwitted protagonist. Svetlana Timofeyeva-Letunovskaya displays an intriguing screen presence as the Colonel’s wife and Aleksandr Korshunov also delivers a charismatic supporting turn as Konovalov, the village’s one decent (and relatively proletarian) authority figure. However, most of their fellow villagers are rather interchangeable and undistinguished. Unfortunately, Heaven tarries far too long with the rather unexceptional comings and goings of their daily village lives.

Ultimately, Heaven is a tragedy several times over. While the central heartbreak unfolds before our eyes, it is important to remember far greater horrors occur off-screen—out-of-sight and out-of-mind for the good Kandalaksha townspeople. Though it meanders a bit at times, Heaven’s fascinating premise and its convincing sense of time and place make it a film worth seeking out. It screens again next Sunday (11/22) at the Millennium Theater.