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Fountain a metaphor for crumbling Soviet society

Tearsheets: MFA

Suggested headline: Two new Soviet films explore harsh realities, one with humor, one with touching emotion

FOUNTAIN

Directed by Yuri Mamin.

Written by Vladimir Vardunas.

Starring Asankul Kuttubayev, Sergei

Dreiden, Zhanna Karimtaveya, and

Victor Mikhailov.

Museum of Fine Arts, May 11 at 7:45.

CEP

Peter: Please see if you can duplicate the Cyrillic script in the film's title. Thanks -- MKT

[FREEDOM IS PARADISE]

Written and directed by Sergei Bodrov.

Starring Volodya Kozyrev, Alexander

Bureyev, Svetlana Gaitan, and Vitautas

Tomkus.

Museum of Fine Arts, May 11 at 5:30.

By MANAVENDRA K. THAKUR

IF FOUNTAIN AND CEP are any indication of the jewels that Soviet cinema has to offer, it makes one wonder why Soviet films are not more widely distributed in the West. Both Fountain and CEP are well-crafted, emotive films that spring from, and speak to, the harsh and bleak realities of contemporary Soviet society. Yet both films effortlessly connect with their viewer by presenting differing but true-to-life responses to surroundings.

stars

Of the two, Fountain is more whimsical, satirical, and humorous, and towards its final minutes it even gets downright surreal. It is about the people who live in a housing complex where the elevator doesn't work, there are cracks in the supporting walls, and the roof is about to cave in.

Chief Engineer Lagutin is the one who has to deal with all of this, plus face the political pressures from community politicians, who have their own version of reality. That's not all: Lagutin's Muslim father-in-law arrives to visit from the desert. He doesn't speak any Russian, and so everyone ends up yelling at him to communicate. Lagutin gives his father-in-law a job as the building's plumber -- which turns out to be a big mistake, since Lagutin's father-in-law has spent a lifetime conserving every drop of water while surviving in the desert.

Various other wacky and bizarre characters inhabit the building, like the musician who finds his artistic inspiration by donning aviator's gloves and goggles and jumping off the roof held by a guide wire. There's another fellow who sells tulips on the black-market and grows them in his apartment, filling every nook and cranny. The building and its occupants soon begin resembling an asylum community, and one person even exclaims at one point, "I can't live in this madhouse anymore!"

It is very easy to see the crumbling building as a metaphor for Soviet society and to Westerners it helps drive home just how daunting a task Mikhail Gorbachev and other Soviet leaders face today in addressing the situation. At one point, the building manager nihilistically tells Lagutin that the system "all rotted away years ago" and would have collapsed except for the "stupid heroism" of idealistic young workers like Lagutin. This amounts to a wholesale indictment of 70 years of Soviet history and casts deep doubt on the possibilities of success -- and even relevance -- of perestroika.

All of this sounds hopelessly bleak, but director Yuri Mamin puts it all into perspective with dashes of humor that alternate between the whimsical and the satirical. His humor is disarming and effective, and seems wholly justified. If someone were to ask Mamin how can he laugh at a situation as bad as this, he would undoubtedly reply, "How can you not?" That healthy attitude goes a long way toward making the film work, as does Mamin's obviously solid grasp of the technical issues of filmmaking.

The one unfortunate aspect to the film, though, is the ending. Just as the community begins working with each other, and just as there seems to be some sign of hope, the film takes a wild step toward the fantastic. It is not a complete leap into science fiction, but it is is a particularly strange way to end a humorous film about social decay. Although any ending would probably seem unsatisfying, this particular ending comes completely out of the blue and weakens the tightly constructed film. It's an unfortunate blot on an otherwise praiseworthy film.

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The second film, CEP (an acronym that stands for "Freedom is Paradise"), is by far the more emotionally involving and honest, being both wrenching and touching at the same time.

It tells the story of a 13-year-old boy named Sasha Grigoriev who has lived in reform schools all his life and who does not have any parents or guardians. His mother died long ago, and he has never met his father, who is serving a jail sentence. Like most kids in a reform school, Sasha is known as a problem child. So he periodically escapes from the school and wanders around until he gets discovered and has to return.

Sasha is not quite the standard urban street-kid. He is equally at home wandering in the countryside, meeting different types of people. He also does not like to talk very much. He just sits quietly, absorbing acts of kindness and cruelty without revealing anything he might feel inside. It's an attitude of self-defense that says not to trust anybody, one that reveals just how early on in life Sasha lost any hint of childlike innocence.

It is on one of his periodic jaunts of freedom that Sasha accidentally discovers the location of the prison where his father is being held. Sasha decides to see his father, and so he escapes again. After literally traveling thousands of miles, he finally arrives at the prison, which is a heavily guarded island in the Arkhangelsk region.

Sasha and his father meet at this point in the film, and all the emotions held back for so long finally begin to flow. The film's portrait of this meeting is devastatingly rich and touching, and the simplest picture of father and son sleeping in the same room together brings home how even in the most harsh and brutal environment the human spirit can still survive.

The existentialist angst that the film consistently evokes comes very close to consuming Sasha and his father, but when they inevitably have to part, they do so with renewed hope that they can ultimately rebuild their lives. The closing shot of Sasha being driven away by his reform school guards captures the renewed bond between father and son with perfect precision.

It was director Sergei Bodrov who guided his own script to fruition. Bodrov's camerawork and directorial style is hardly flashy, but it is nevertheless most effective and appropriate. The most sophisticated Bodrov gets is to use jump cut editing in disorienting ways, especially in the film's first half. This induces the viewer to lose track of the continuity of time and events in the same way Sasha and his father have blurred their memories of the past. To them, the only thing that really matters is the present -- the here and now -- and things like "history" and "past" are measured only by the hazy passage of dimly-remembered, indistinguishable days.

Bodrov constantly blurs the passage of time in his film, not only with his editing but with the abruptness with which characters are introduced and then dropped shortly afterwards. This virtual parade is repeated many times in the film with different characters, but the characters always seem like real people, never stilted or cartoonish.

These characters point to what is perhaps Bodrov's most important achievement: the performances he elicits from his actors. Bodrov's portrait of Sasha as a scrawny, laconic, emotionless kid is extremely believable, and it is quite a credit to Volodya Kozyrev -- the young actor who portrays Sasha -- that Sasha's eyes, face, and body are so expressive. The utter simplicity of Kozyrev's performance is what belies its eloquence. Also effective is the father, whose tough-guy fa,cade is fortified with piercing dark eyes and a completely shaved head. Again, it is the physicality of the actor's performance that creates the father's compelling screen presence. There are no excessive gestures or explicit verbalizing. This restrained style of acting complements the laconic, show-no-emotion attitude the characters have adopted.

Bodrov's approach also leaves plenty of room for the viewer to think, to feel, and to fill in the gaps. This helps ensure that viewers are active participants rather than passive observers. The result is an enriched experience that seems all the more real and honest because the viewer has made a significant contribution toward creating it. Less is more in this case -- any other approach would most likely not have been as successful.

All of these qualities come together to create a haunting portrait of the crushing burden Sasha and his father face in their situation, which is equally if not more desperate than the plight of the wacky characters in Fountain. By speaking to these concerns, both films are fueled to a large extent by nihilism and by existentialist angst. However, whereas Fountain wanders off into the fantastic, CEP ends with a stirring reconciliation between father and son that is also -- in its most basic form -- a reconciliation of the clash between existentialism and humanism. This is what transforms the deeply personal into the wholly universal, and for all the angst in the film, CEP is the one that truly ends with a sign of hope.

In this respect, CEP is reminiscent of Wim Wenders' Wings of Desire and some of the road movies of the 1970s. The bleak realities addressed by Soviet films like CEP and Fountain have become open game ever since glasnost became a household word. One could make valid comparisons between the current general resurgence in Soviet cinema and the advent of the nihilistic film noir era in American filmmaking when censorship ended immediately after World War II. Of course, future film historians will sort out these historical comparisons in time. For now, these two films -- and particularly CEP -- are of value socially and politically as well as artistically.