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Following in the footsteps of Silent Souls andCelestial Wives of the Meadow Mari two years later, Russian director Aleksei Fedorchenko again delves into the lives of his country’s ethnic minorities with Angels of Revolution, a visual feast depicting the cultural clash of a group of Russian avant-garde artists with the tribes they aim to bring into the nascent Soviet Union’s ideological fold in the early 1930s.
As in Celestial Wives of the Meadow Mari – a film about the titular ethnic group’s sex-related pagan rituals wrought large and fantastical – comical moments are plentiful in Angels of Revolution, with Fedorchenko having a field day poking at the roots of young revolutionaries’ urban idealism and their absurd attempts to pitch their take on modernity to skeptical rural folk on the edge of the tundras. But there’s an ominous tone here, as both parties in the story struggle to negotiate a cultural truce.
It’s a collision that will eventually end in tears and bloodshed, as the Khanty’s discontent and armed resistance – now known as Kazym Rebellion, named after the new town built by Russian authorities to urbanize and collectivize the tribes – would lead to a bloody clampdown by arriving Soviet forces. Perhaps symbolizing the tone of the film – and echoing Fedorchenko’s penchant for the whimsical – the crackdown is played out toward the end by muppets, and this use of the childlike to depict gruesome realities sums up the Russian auteur’s audacity and invention. Angel could very well take off on the festival circuit.
There’s some foreboding to the heartrending, violent end of it all at the very beginning of the film, when gun-toting Khanty women storm into a classroom and take away their costumed children rehearsing a hilarious play about animals struggling in the cold tundras. This is January 1934; before Fedorchenko reveals the confrontations to follow, the film takes a step back with an hour’s worth of lengthy introductions of the Siberia-bound artists: lined up alongside the much-decorated soldier-cum-thespian Polina (Darya Fedorchenko) is composer Ivan (Oleg Yagodin), filmmaker Pyotr (Pavel Basov), photographer Zakhar (Georgi Iobadze), architect Nikolai (Konstantin Balakirev) and schoolteacher Smirnov (Alexei Solonchyov).
Boasting very different strengths and quirks, the characters also come with back stories that could count as a primer on the ludicrous nature of the Soviet Union’s ruling dogma in those early years. As delirium sets in for the group and their ardor blinds them from possible deadly transgressions with their subjects’ sacred ways of life, the locals’ initial bemusement morphs into lethal resistance.
While one could easily identify Angels as merely a continuation of Fedorchenko’s fascination with exotic tribes in Russia’s outer reaches, his film might also have another “minority” in mind; those young experimentalists of the 1930s could easily be seen as outcasts, their artistic visions soon to be extinguished (alongside those pagan tribal rituals) as Joseph Stalin deems these ideas dangerous.
As someone whose artistic approach is an acquired taste – his films sometimes flirts with excessive kitsch – Fedorchenko might be making a statement here. Still, his latest outing manages to usher the narrative from its darkly humorous beginnings to abject, black tragedy. With near-faultless production values, Angels of Revolution offers a flight into dark recesses now mostly relegated to footnotes in the defunct Soviet Union’s checkered history.
Production companies: February 29 Film Company, Red Arrow Film Company
Cast: Darya Fedorchenko, Oleg Yagodin, Pavel Basov, Georgi Iobadze
Director: Aleksei Fedorchenko
Screenwriters: Aleksei Fedorchenko, Denis Osokin, Oleg Loevsky
Producers: Dmitry Vorobiev, Aleksei Fedorchenko, Leonid Lebedev
Director of photography: Shandor Berkeshi
Production designer: Aleksei Fedorchenko, Artem Khabibulin
Costume designer: Olga Gusak
Editor: Roman Vazhenin
Casting director: Olga Gilyova
Music: Andrei Karasev
In Russian and Khanty
No rating; 105 minutes
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