Legendary film exhibitor/producer Ben Barenholtz is widely credited with popularizing the midnight movie concept with his screenings of such cult films as El Topo and Eraserhead at his long-gone Elgin Theater in Manhattan. He’s also produced such films as the Coen brothers’ Miller’s Crossing and Barton Fink. Now, at the age of 82, Barenholtz makes his feature film directorial debut with Alina, the sort of micro-budgeted independent film he might have programmed decades ago. Unfortunately, that same dated feel permeates this earnest effort about a young Russian woman trying to find her father in New York City.
The title character, played by Darya Ekamasova (FX’s The Americans), has left her sickly mother behind in Moscow, telling her that she’s going to Cuba when she’s really gone to America to track down the father, whom she knows only from a faded, 25-year-old photograph. Arriving in Manhattan, she stumbles upon the Russian Samovar — a venerable real-life theater district restaurant once owned by poet Joseph Brodsky — where she’s immediately taken under the wing of bartender Maria (Olga N. Bogdanova), a fellow Russian who shows her the ropes.
Alina already has a place to live, sharing an apartment with an old friend (Anna Vlads) and two other young Russian women who are all model-gorgeous. Mocking Alina’s frumpy clothing, they encourage her to dress in a manner better designed to show off her assets so she can meet rich men and enjoy lavish gifts and fancy vacations. They also provide a helpful lesson on how to deliver a proper blow job.
Taking a job as a hostess at a nightclub whose owner (Grisha Reydler) barely tries to hide his amorous intentions, the religious-minded Alina falls under the sway of her new environment. After unknowingly consuming drugs, she parties the night away and wakes up in the morning with a strange man in her bed. She also gets introduced to a gregarious Italian family who may have information about her father’s identity and falls in love with its matriarch’s (Diane Martella) handsome young grandson (David Atrakchi).
In addition to its unconvincing, cliché-ridden storyline, Alina takes itself too seriously. Its endlessly sympathetic heroine, who demonstrates her sensitivity by her penchant for photography and excellent piano playing, is just one of many one-note characterizations. Everyone with whom Alina comes into contact proves either saintly or demonic, with the Russian women mostly portrayed as gold diggers — ironically, one of them complains about the stereotype — and the Russian men as sex-obsessed. The Italians, on the other hand, prove family-loving and kindly as they happily gather in the kitchen to make pasta. Further, the film descends into melodrama when Alina finally finds out her family’s history, which includes a shocking revelation about her own mother.
Barenholtz doesn’t help matters with his flat, styleless direction — you’d think that the many filmmakers with whom he’s worked would have had an influence — and the treacly, piano-heavy score that telegraphs every emotion. That the film works to any extent is largely due to Ekamasova, who brings a moving, wide-eyed tremulousness to her portrayal of the title character.
Production company: Super 80
Cast: Darya Ekamasova, Olga N. Bogdanova, David Atrakchi, Grisha Reydler, Anna Vlads, Alisa Ermolaey, Evgeniya Orudzheva
Director-screenwriter: Ben Barenholtz
Producers: Ben Barenholtz, Arnie J. Sawyer
Executive producers: Sofia Madyarova, Stephen Purvis, Stephanie Sharis
Director of photography: Eun-ah Lee
Production designer: Sandy Yaklin
Editor: Michael Berenbaum
Costume designer: Michael Bevins
Composer: Andery Karasev, Dmitry Garin
Casting: Destiny Lilly