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Venice Film Festival, In Competition
A film about the Sixties’ space race told from the Russian p.o.v.? Yuri Gagarin in the Cosmodrome preparing for the first manned space flight? How could a film with a concept like that miss, especially when shot by hot young filmmaker Alexey German, Jr.? Unfortunately, “Paper Soldier” does miss, at least as far as paying audiences are concerned, though this handsome looking, theatrical-style film can count on festival hosannas from auds into sophisticated filmmaking and complexly orchestrated camerawork.
But however good the film looks on screen, it’s a pity the script-writers vote to ignore the subject’s dramatic potential in favor of chattering Chekhovian dialogue and dense, incomprehensible characters.
The theme that finally emerges is fascinating enough: the dashed hopes of the Russian intelligentsia following the 1960’s thaw in East-West relations, when freedom and happiness seemed around the corner and ultimately failed to materialize. One only wishes “Paper Soldier” twined that theme around the kind of dramatic moments that illuminated the director’s much-praised debut, “The Last Train.”
Daniel (Mereb Ninidze) is a good-looking doctor from Georgia who, in 1961, heads the medical team in Kazakhstan where Gagarin will soon be launched into space. Up to now, only animals have been sent up on dangerous, usually fatal test missions. When a space cadet is burned alive in a hyperbaric chamber, Daniel indulges in Hamlet-like doubts about whether it is right to risk a human life on a space launch. He goes so far as to try to discourage Gagarin, but the cheerful, unflappable future hero is obviously no tortured intellectual, and ignores him.
Horsing around in the Kazakh training center or in their bleak country dashas, the scientists and their friends communicate in strings of non-sequitors which make for truly bad dialogue. Gradually the attention shifts to Daniel’s wife and fellow doctor Nina (Chulpan Khamatova), who seems oblivious to the historical moment and thinks mainly about having a baby. When she makes a surprise visit to the Baikonur Cosmodrome (unfortunately never seen in the film), she discovers Daniel is having an affair with a local girl named Vera (Anastasya Sheveleva.) All ends on a note of tragic despair.
Ninidze and Khamatova are well-cast as the intellectual protags, even if they look a tad too fadish for Khrushchev’s day. Cinematography credit is shared by Alisher Khamidhodjaev and Maxim Drozdov, who use desaturated colors and a constantly moving camera to give Sixties’ Kazakhstan a stylish, post-modern look.
Production company: Phenomen Film, TV Channel Russia. Cast: Merab Ninidze, Chulpan Khamatova, Anastasya Sheveleva. Director: Alexey German, Jr. Screenwriters: Alexey German, Jr., Vladimir Arkusha. Producers: Artem Vassiliev, Sergei Shumakov. Directors of photography: Alisher Khamidhodjaev, Maxim Drozdov. Production designers: Sergei Kakovkin, Eldar Karhalev. Music: Fedor Sofronov. Costumes: Elena Malich. Editor: Sergei Ivanov. Sales Agent: Elle Driver, Paris 118 minutes.
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