Nothing generated bad karma like Soviet Socialism. Nobody understands that better than a defector like Alexander Ivanov. Even though he attained wealth and success in New York, he is still haunted by the events surrounding his sudden departure. Taking advantage of the Glasnost thaw, Ivanov’s niece will try to investigate her murky family history in Shamin Sarif’s adaptation of her novel Despite the Falling Snow (trailer here), which screens during the 2016 California Independent Film Festival.
Their styles are radically different, but Lauren Ivanov is the spitting image of her aunt, Katya Grinkova. Alexander Ivanov successfully found asylum in America, but Grinkova never made it out of the USSR. Intellectually, Ivanov has a very good idea of her probable fate, but the guilt and uncertainty have tormented him for years.
Ironically, it was Grinkova who was the American intelligence source. Although she played the model Soviet citizen, she bitterly resented the Communist system for executing her parents during the dark days of Stalinism. She initially bedazzled the true believing Ivanov on the orders of her handler, Ivanov’s colleague Misha. However, the mission really gets complicated when Grinkova and Ivanov genuinely fall in love. Most of this will come as news to Lauren when she travels to Moscow for an art exhibition. She even starts to get some answers thanks to the help of a reformist journalist, but the mysterious Marina has her own agenda in play.
Sarrif combines an elegant memory play with a period espionage thriller to tell an intriguing tale, in which the toxic past continues to corrode the present day (circa 1992). It is a smart and sophisticated, but it is not necessarily out to re-ignite the Cold War. Nevertheless, whenever the Soviet apparatchiks have the chance to do something despicable, they never let it go to waste. There is a bit of le Carré-style moral ambiguousness, but it is pretty clear the KGB was far worse than their western counterparts—and most bacterial diseases.
Rebecca Ferguson is just terrific as Grinkova and her niece. She gives two performances so different in look and temperament, she could easily pass for two people. As usual, the eternally reliable Charles Dance enriches the film with his steely gravitas and commanding voice, which are so well suited to suave old Ivanov. Sam Reid is bit bland and unassuming as his younger self, but Oliver Jackson-Cohen chews the scenery quite nicely as the darkly charismatic Misha. As Marina, Antje Traue’s intriguing screen presence also cranks up the sexual tension, in keeping with the themes of Sarif’s prior films, I Can’t Think Straight and The World Unseen.
Falling Snow is a classy film that hits the right tragically romantic notes. Sarif handles the constantly shifting timelines relatively well and ties it all together into a satisfying package. Recommended for those who enjoy an old fashioned Cold War melodrama, Despite the Falling Snow screens this Sunday (9/11) at the Orinda Theatre as part of this year’s CAIFF in the East Bay.