Russia (2011) Dir. Aleksandr Zeldovich
What is happiness? Can it be bought? Is what makes us happy ever truly right for us? Does absolute purity really exist? What does good or evil really mean? And will we be happy if we can live forever? A dystopian Russia is the last place to find answers but it has sufficient grounds to ponder these and other existential questions.
Set in 2020 and the wealthy have it all. Minister of natural resources Viktor Chelshchev (Maxim Sukhanov) and his wife Zoya (Justine Waddell) certainly seem to except for a moribund sex life and no children. In his search for the pure neutral mineral, Viktor learns of a remote area that was once a military facility known as the Target, designed to collect “good” radiation purported to freeze the aging process.
Along with Zoya’s TV presenter brother Mitya (Danila Kozlovsky) and border-control officer Nikolai (Vitaly Kischenko), Zoya and Viktor head off to the Target, where they meet Anna (Daniela Stoyanovich) and local girl Taya (Nina Loschinina) – who looks 19 but is actually 52 – and subject themselves to the good radiation. Refreshed and revitalised they return to Moscow where their lives steadily begin to change.
That is not half of what occurs in this 154-minute sci-fi-cum-social drama, co-scripted by noted Russian novelist Vladimir Sorokin whose previous dystopian fiction could inadvertently prove to be scarily prescient, especially with You-know-who currently in charge of the country. The themes are universal as wealth distribution is a widespread problem as is the caprice of the rich, posing the above-mentioned question of its correlation with happiness.
This is suggested almost immediately by the sterility of Viktor’s home – clean, spacious, smart but lacking in energy and sings of joy. Zoya wears a special gold mask every day to help retain her looks, at first fooling us into thinking Viktor has a robot maid, although the clear ennui found in her expression does little to dispel this mistaken notion. This would explain way she jumps at the chance to head off for the weekend.
Mitya is a rather manic, brash personality when on TV, hosting a bizarre cooking show in which two contestants of differing opinions discuss huge philosophical issues whilst preparing a meal. This sounds like a Monty Python sketch but serves as a way to vent about the disparity in attitudes between the have and have nots in modern society.
Away from the spotlight, Mitya is moody and unsure of himself, until he meets Anna, the sultry voice behind his favourite radio show Chinese For Dummies. This isn’t as random as it sounds with much of the business taking place conducted with China, its rise as a global superpower is another potent nod to the changes of the current world, also playing a part in the fate of one character.
The fourth member of the party to visit Target is Nikolai, a bald headed, hard-nosed customs officer and horse breeder responsible for the highway connecting Russia and China. He and his men run an insurance scam with Chinese drivers, running them off the road then confiscating their goods to sell on and share the profit.
Nikolai is not beyond using violence, this dangerous edge perhaps being the reason Zoya begins a torrid affair with him, finally enjoying the explosive sex she has missed with Viktor. But as before, complete fulfilment is still absent from Zoya’s life. Much of it coming from the dark side of Nikolai’s personality, exacerbated by Viktor’s revenge when Zoya leaves him.
It all sounds very soap opera-ish but these scenarios are laced with the bitter aftertaste of existentialist tragedy and allegorical opprobrium, rooted firmly in the classics of Russian literature as opposed to appealing to Eastenders fans. An understanding of this foundation will make this a more palatable experience for some but not to the exclusion of those of us less knowledgeable – the often meandering indulgences of the script do a good job of that.
One aspect we haven’t discussed yet is the futuristic sci-fi elements, which have been only marginally exaggerated given the 2020 timeline. No flying cars or robot police here, but car windscreens can project video images and maps; Viktor meanwhile has invented goggles that can read the good and evil in anything – people, animals, rocks, nature etc. – which drives him to create a world with the most pure minerals in the world.
But Viktor is unable to see that one really needs the other and in the film’s chilling final act, he is dismayed when the people at a party he is hosting have turned it into a decadent orgy with everyone’s reading firmly in the blue (for evil). The closing shot has a quiet air of hope about it but the overriding melancholy is more likely to suggest a lament for a future where money and greed will not be the salvation to our problems.
The main roles aren’t easy on the cast, the apparent clear definition of each character at the beginning gradually giving way to something unrecognisable by the end, all sense of hope and zest drained from them. A lot is asked of the actors but enduring the most, thus giving the standout performance is stunning British thesp Justine Waddell, who learned to speak Russian from scratch to play Zoya.
Despite rambling on for almost 1000 words, this review barely touches the surface of the main threads of this film or the deeply entrenched philosophical questions it asks, for which I apologise. Then again, there is a lot to absorb in the two and half hour plus run time and not all of it hits the target, regardless of the overall beguiling nature of the presentation.
Target may or may not be a great film; it all depends on how much one can read into the subtleties and symbolism of the sprawling story. It is quite something to behold however and deserve kudos for its challenging and esoteric vision.