Rebellion: The Litvinenko Case

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Toronto Film Festival

TORONTO -- Despite a timely, intrigue-filled subject and a level of access that has now become impossible, "Rebellion" lacks the storytelling drive it needs to stand out on the documentary circuit. Theatrical prospects are limited, and an unconventional presentation makes for a tough sell on television.

Initially adopting a variation of the subjective factgathering approach favored by Nick Broomfield, director Andrei Nekrasov admits to viewers that he is dissatisfied with the account he gave to authorities when questioned about the death of his friend, the poisoned Russian FSB agent Alexander Litvinenko. This film, he says, will stand as his personal "testimony" on the matter.

Accordingly, he turns the camera on himself while making telephone calls, shows his silent attention as he interviews figures in the case, and even talks a bit about his student years in St. Petersburg, when he and his artist friends knew that one of their number reported on them for the KGB.

But Nekrasov's personality never emerges the way Broomfield's does, and he's also missing that knack for laying out one discovery after another to create a mystery that draws us in. In Nekrasov's hands, a mountain of damning testimony feels like less than it actually is; despite his personal investment, it sometimes comes across as a pile of data -- thematically related, but not particularly well organized -- instead of a story.

That's almost unforgivable, given a topic that's as globally important as it is juicy: Adding to recent investigative accounts in the print media, "Rebellion" contains much to suggest that the Russian government is rotten to the core.

"Nobody even talks about corruption any more," one interviewee says of the way things are now run there, indicating that mere bribery and cronyism are nothing compared to the thuggery -- starting with baldfaced threats and escalating to murder -- with which Russian officials protect their power. Other voices go further, asserting that the horrific Moscow bombings in 1999 were actually the work of Russian operatives who needed a reason to go to war in Chechnya. Various historical tidbits place President Vladimir Putin squarely in league with the villains, a truly chilling subject that deserves more forceful presentation.

(Storytelling problems aside, the pic is shot in such a distractingly eccentric style that mainstream audiences may dismiss it outright as the work of basement-dwelling conspiracy theorists.)

Much of the raw material Nekrasov has gathered would be useful in a more rigorous doc, although some moments play best here: After an interview with Litvinenko's alleged assassin Andrei Lugovoi, who goes into detail about the way radioactive material could be transmitted via teacup, the former KGB agent actually offers the journalist a cup of tea.

REBELLION: THE LITVINENKO CASE
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Director: Andrei Nekrasov
Writers: Olga Konskaya, Andrei Nekrasov
Producer: Olga Konskaya
Director of photography: Marcus Winterbauer
Editor: Olga Konskaya

No MPAA rating, running time 109 minutes

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