A Room and a Half -- Film Review

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This Russian film is about as different as you can get from standard-issue Hollywood biopics. Audrey Khrzhanovsky, a veteran animator in both Soviet and post-Soviet era Russia, makes a smooth feature debut with "A Room and a Half," a free-form look at the life of exiled Russian poet and Nobel Laureate Joseph Brodsky (1940-1996). Outside its native country, the film will mostly travel the festival circuit although occasional art house playdates can be expected.

The film mixes archival footage, different styles of animation and nostalgic re-enactments of Brodsky's life to render an artistic fulfilling but melancholy life of a man forced to live in exile in the U.S. after the Soviets kick him out in 1972. He never saw his aging parents again.

The movie imagines that he did travel by luxury liner back to his hometown of Leningrad -- St. Petersburg? -- for a final visit with his parents. En route, he reminiscences about his childhood and activities as a young man but the focus lands solidly on the love between this only child and his parents.

Grigoriy Dityatkovskiy, a dead ringer for Brodsky -- the real man is glimpsed in an old newsreel -- plays the writer with a gentle-sad longing for what was but what can never be reclaimed. As a young man, he seems fascinated by Western culture, as is most of his crowd. His love life consists of a series of young women introduced to his parents and then escorted behind a curtain in their claustrophobic room-and-a-half flat.

Little is done to establish Brodsky's importance as a poet. Indeed for non-Russian speakers the frustration is that the visuals tend to overwhelm the words and those words get translated into white subtitles often lost against white backgrounds. (When will subtitlists learn that you must use yellow letters if they are to be seen against all backgrounds?)

This is therefore a limited glimpse of a famous writer, showing little about his American experiences and almost nothing about his creative life. Rather it's an exile's lament, a vivid demonstration that you cannot remove Russia from the soul of a Russian no matter where he lives.

Alisa Freindlich and Sergei Yurskiy, who play the parents, grab most of the camera's attention while the whimsical animation, from cats to floating musical instruments, dominate the visual side to the movie.

Venue: AFI Fest
Cast: Grigoriy Dityatkovskiy, Alisa Freindlich, Sergei Yurskiy, Artem Smola, Evgeniy Ogandzhanyan
Director: Andrey Khrzhanovsky
Screenwriters: Yuri Arabov, Andrey Khrzhanovsky
Producer: Andrey Khrzhanovsky, Artem Vassiliev
Executive producer: Lyuboc Gaidukova
Director of photography: Vladimir Brylyakov
Production designers: Marina Azyzian, V, Svetozarov, M. Gavrilov
Editor: Maria Neyman
Sales: School-studio SHAR
No rating, 130 minutes
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