He played a zombie in Night of the Living Dead and is widely recognized as the man who discovered David Lynch and the Coen Brothers. Producer-distributor Ben Barenholtz’s place in film history was already secure before he directed his first narrative feature at the youthful age of eighty. Manoel de Oliveira was still regularly cranking out films when he passed away at an untimely 106, so who’s to say how many more films Barenholtz might have in him? In any event, his directorial debut is rather notable. The title character will sip tea at the Russian Samovar and learn something about herself and her dear mother in Barenholtz’s Alina (trailer here), which opens today in New York.
Her mother never speaks of her father or their time together in New York, so Alina sneaks off to find out for herself, under the pretense of visiting Cuba on a rumba pilgrimage. It turns out her childhood friend degenerated into a gold digger with loose morals. However, Maria, a bartender at the Samovar proves to be a fast but true friend. She will help Alina follow her father’s trail, but in doing so, she inadvertently introduces the naïve Russian woman to some really smarmy cads, with money and bad intentions.
On the plus side, she also introduces herself to a big, boisterous Italian family, whose paths tangentially crossed those her father. The brooding grandson David rather turns her head and vice versa. There might be something brewing there, assuming history does not repeat itself.
As one would expect from the Ukraine-born Barenholtz, his film has a good feel for the Russian diaspora community, as well as the streets of New York City. Unlike terminally cute indies, the tone is darker and grittier than viewers might expect, but very true to the immigrant/migrant worker experience.
Darya Ekamasova (probably best known in America for The Americans) is quite remarkable as Alina. It is a forceful yet very vulnerable performance, which certainly sounds very Russian, doesn’t it? She shares a pleasant rapport with David Atrakchi’s David—and the rest of his big fat Italian family. On the other side of the spectrum, Grisha Reydler is charismatically sinister as her exploitative boss.