Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Slava Tsukerman’s Perestroika

Dr. Alexander “Sasha” Greenberg is one of the leading authorities on the structure of the universe, but it is increasingly difficult for him to structure his own life. As for how Russia’s future would take shape, it was anyone’s guess in the pivotal year of 1992. Seeking some answers in his own life, the former Refusenik scientist returns to the city of his birth in Slava Tsukerman’s Perestroika (trailer here), which opens in New York this Friday.

Returning to Moscow after the fall of Communism, much appears to have changed for the better—at least to extent. During a tour, the owner of a television studio tells Greenberg: “sex and Jews are our two most popular subjects today. Everyone wants to film what used to be forbidden.” However, opinions vary widely among Greenberg’s old friends about the prospects for post-Soviet life. Some support Yeltsin, while others are deeply skeptical. Some acquaintances put their hopes in democratic capitalism, while a few actually advocate a return to authoritarian rule. For his part, Greenberg just wants a drink.

Greenberg is experiencing the homecoming his mentor, American defector Prof. Henry Gross, thought would be impossible. He finds himself a celebrity, mobbed by people he hardly remembers, in a surreal reunion. Though it is all smiles now, not all of his memories are pleasant, as when Gross denounced him in class for applying for immigration.

Perestroika is named after Gorbachev’s “restructuring” policies, rather than Glasnost, his so-called “openness” policies of the same era. Indeed, structure is a critical issue for Greenberg. If he changes his life, will he only replace pieces, perhaps trading his frequently estranged wife for his younger mistress? Likewise, will the Russians exchange the yoke of Communism for another dictatorship? (Sadly, in retrospect, this appears to be the case).

Like Greenberg, Tsukerman was also a Refusenik who ultimately immigrated to New York by way of Israel. He is best known for the radically different Liquid Sky, but he displays an equally distinctive visual approach in Perestroika. Blending cosmic animation, archival documentary footage, intentionally obvious use of blue-screen photography, and highly stylized visions of Moscow, Perestroika is not exactly an exercise is socialist realism. It is reflective of Greenberg’s deep but disorderly thoughts.

In Perestroika, characters often talk in metaphors. While it runs the risk of sounding pretentious, it is often fascinating, particularly during key conversations between Greenberg and his old mentor. Though Sam Robards’ accent might be a bit spotty, he conveys both a believable world-weariness and even a genuine likability as the prodigal Greenberg. As the erudite Gross, Oscar winner F. Murray Abraham is perfectly cast, capturing his disarming charm, while spinning out advanced scientific concepts with ease.

Perestroika is surprisingly fast-paced, considering it is driven by ideas and dialogue. Despite its rather abrupt conclusion, it is a smart, challenging picture that brings considerable insight to bear on very recent Russian-Soviet history. Perestroika opens this Friday in New York at the Cinema Village.