Friday, January 23, 2015

NYJFF ’15: Angels of Revolution

As envisioned by Alexey Fedorchenko, the real life Polina Schneider is something like the mythical heroines of the French Resistance. She is an action figure and an artist, who can juggle legions of lovers while remaining faithful to her leftist ideology. Unfortunately, her latest assignment will end badly when she tries to win over the indigenous people of western Siberia with avant-garde Soviet art and theater in Fedorchenko’s Angels of Revolution (trailer here), which screens during this year’s New York Jewish Film Festival.

Schneider has the dash of Amelia Earhart, the crack marksmanship of Lara Croft, and the politicized artistic soul of Simone Weil. Her Soviet masters are confident she can stem the discontent brewing among the Khanty people and perhaps spilling over into the neighboring Nenet. In his infinite generosity, Stalin has built the town of Kazym, complete with a boarding school, where indigenous children forcibly attend classes, but are forbidden from using their native tongues.

To reach their hearts and minds, Schneider and her four male colleagues will build atheist monuments and stage ridiculous pageants. While their revolutionary spirits are willing, it seems their artistic talents are inadequate for the task at hand. If you think you know where this is all heading, you are probably right, but Fedorchenko keeps the bloodshed not wholly off-screen, but mostly confined to the far corner of the field of vision.

It also hardly helps that he does everything possible to chop and dice his narrative, incorporating needlessly whimsical intertitles and injecting highly stylized interludes. This is a fascinating yet under-reported historical incident that would be better served by a more straight forward approach. Still, despite its rather scattershot nature, Angels represents a considerable rebound for Fedorchenko after his excessively sketchy and overly precious Celestial Wives of the Meadow Mari. In contrast, Angels has a pointed perspective and it very definitely builds to something significant. Rather than one powerful indictment of the Stalinist era, it is more like a half dozen little nibbling critiques.

Regardless, with his largely sympathetic treatment of the Khanty and Nenet, Fedorchenko has established himself as the leading cinematic chronicler of Russia’s ethnic minorities, following his earthy but lightweight ode to the Mari and the austere but surprisingly moving Silent Souls, featuring the Merjan Russians. Fedorchenko and his co-art director Artem Khabibulin also brilliantly recreate the Soviet constructivist madness of the era.

When Angels works, it is absolutely inspired, but when it gets bogged in its own affectations, it can get stuck noodling about for a while. Consequently, it is dramatically uneven (featuring intentionally stiff, ironically intentional propaganda-like performances), but its ambition, historical honesty, and ironic sensibility pulls it through. Recommended with mild aesthetic reservations, Angels of Revolution screens twice this coming Tuesday (1/27) at the Walter Reade Theater, as part of the 2015 NYJFF.