Review “The Vanished Empire” winner of Russian Academy’s Golden Eagle Award for Directing (Ischeznuvshaya imperiya, Russia, 2008) October 23-29, 2009
Restless Moscow teens seek girls and all things Western as a vast empire starts its long crumble (Ischeznuvshaya imperiya, Russia, 2008)
The setting for Russian director Karen Shakhnazarov’s latest film “The Vanished Empire” is 1973 Brezhnev-era Moscow as seen through the eyes of a restless group of university freshmen. The title hints at a profundity that the film never achieves but Shakhnararov does offer amazingly realistic period props and media clips and a melancholic coming of age story. The film shys away from direct political analysis but manages to convey the rights of passage for Moscow youth in a tightly-controlled society.
The plot revolves around a trio of young men, the most interesting and dynamic of whom is Sergey (Aleksandr Lyapin) a restless 18 year old whose ambition is channeled towards scoring contraband blue jeans and hot rock albums from the Stones and Deep Purple which figure heavily in his cool factor and his seduction ploys with girls. He probably models himself after what he’s heard about Mick Jagger but he lacks authentic charisma. Still, he manages to pick up girls and to pull off bad boy behavior, disappointing those who are most important to him. His friend Kostya (Ivan Kupreyenko) is on a quest to become an authentic rocker and when he scores a bass guitar, he quickly assembles a band and is soon performing at rave-like gatherings, high on weed. Stupya or Stephan (Yegor Baranovsky), is a quiet follower, but figures late in the film as a rival to Sergey’s romantic interest, Lyuda (Lidiya Milyuzina), who shines as the naïve good girl. Indeed it is sweet and trusting Lyuda who brings some real warmth to this story.
When it comes to thinking the consequences of this actions through, Sergey, like most teen boys everywhere, seems to have mush for brains and he keeps repeating his mistakes. He epitomizes the self-seeking individual, obtaining money for his contraband Western Wrangler jeans, Stone’s records and foreign film-festival tickets by stealing and then hawking his bed-ridden grandfather’s (Armen Dzhigarkhanyan) precious books. He also persuades his friends to join in the action and start transforming their family libraries into cash.
The most engaging aspect of this film is free-wheeling Sergey’s growing entanglement in the responsibilities of adult life, which he fights almost as strongly as his mother battles cancer. When he lies to his freinds and cheats on his girlfriend, his betrayals breed unforeseen consequences and his care-free life is over. His behavior epitomoizes all that lay ahead for the society–a national epidemic of corruption.
Sergey’s relationship with his grandfather, the father figure, is strained. The old man is a celebrated archeologist who discovered and excavated the ancient desert City of the Wind, all that remains of the ancient 5th century BC Khorezm civilization (in central Uzbekistan). He knows exactly what his grandson is up to but turns a blind eye.
In a fascinating travel sequence, first presented as a hallucination on a drug trip and then as a real-life journey, Segey fulfills his grandfather’s request and treks through the sandy plains of central Uzbekistan to the desolate City of the Wind, an oasis of crumbing grand ruins immersed in sand along the tributaries of the Amu-dar’ya River. These are the remains of the ancient Khorezm people, who survived the dessert climate by building an intricate system of damns that became a bustling center of commerce. Eventually, everything crumbles, civilizations and boys who misbehave, but there are actions that hasten the fall.
The brief snippets of Soviet-era life are gems—a history class devoted to Lenin, centralized government-run media blaring on about the American imperialists in Vietnam and the coup in Chile and Leonid Brezhnev’s reports to the people about productivity gains in the empire….it all sounds like ideological blather.
Written by Sergey Rokotov, Evgeny Nikishov. Photographed by Shandor Berkeshi. With Alexander Lyapin, Lidiya Milyuzina, Ivan Kupreyenko, Yegor Baranovsky. In Russian with English subtitles. 100 min. Distributed by Kino International Films.
Screens Sundance Kabuki Cinemas October 23-29, 2009 at 1:45 pm, 4:35 pm, 7:10 pm, 9:30 pm.