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Soviet-era emigre novelist and poet Sergei Dovlatov may not be a household name in the West, but at home he is considered a superstar, a symbol of the USSR’s tragic rejection of its greatest artists and talents and, more generally, of reality itself. In director Alexey German Jr.’s backward glance at his country’s communist past, Dovlatov poetically evokes a long-lost world in which poetry mattered tremendously, and writers like the hero preferred to starve than write commissioned kitsch and lies.
Outside of festivals, however, it may not be easy to scrounge up audiences for the story of a man languishing under imposed writer’s block. Serbian actor Milan Maric impressively fills the boots of the Jewish-Armenian writer with his commanding, ironic presence, but he has little to do but roam the streets and literary haunts of Leningrad. Still, the film is a much easier watch than the director’s last feature, the dour Under Electric Clouds (2015). In that film, people dreamed about the end of the world; at least Dovlatov dreams about Brezhnev giving him an encouraging pat on the back.
The entire film takes place over six cold, snowy-white days in November 1971 in Leningrad, where a broad spectrum of Russian writers and artists past and present are evoked like witnesses to history. Dovlatov, who we know will ultimately be forced to immigrate to New York, floats through literary salons and publishing houses in search of a way to express himself without compromising his integrity as a writer. It proves a hopeless task.
Though his talent was widely recognized in his day, he was too much the nonconformist to get entry into the writers union. Without membership, he can publish nothing except senseless reports and interviews for a factory newspaper glorifying Soviet society, where “greed is a thing of the past.” But even there his staunch integrity gets him fired.
Between visits to literary soirees and jazz clubs, squabbling with his wife over their upcoming divorce and taking his young daughter Katya on walks through the snow, Dovlatov’s life stagnates and unravels. There isn’t much trace of the legendary sense of humor that is so evident in his books like The Suitcase: A Novel and Pushkin Hills. Life seems overwhelmed by the everyday absurdities of society.
In one surreal scene set at a shipyard (a location that foreshadows the Polish Solidarity movement a decade later), Dovlatov talks to actors dressed up as Tolstoy, Pushkin and Dostoevsky about how the masters relate to current Soviet affairs. He receives politically correct answers.
Another impossible assignment takes him underground to interview a young oil worker who writes poetry. Or rather, wrote poetry, until he was disillusioned by love. Dovlatov drags him to a fancy party where German’s constantly roving camera picks up snatches of unrelated conversations in a collage of characters that could have come out of a dream.
Even the turning points have an unreal, dreamlike feeling. There is a writer who slits his wrists in a publisher’s office when his manuscript gets rejected for the nth time, the arrest and tragic death of a painter who admires Jackson Pollock, and the painful decision to immigrate abroad by his friend Joseph Brodsky. As they both know, there is no coming back to the USSR once you leave, and the film’s merit is to make the viewer understand that despite all the nonsense and repression, there was something uniquely, irreplaceably creative about those years
Elena Okopnaya’s stylish sets with vertical interest create a sophisticated world out of time, echoed in Lukasz Zal’s bright, snow-themed lensing, dominated by whites and cream colors.
Production companies: SAGa, Metrafilms in association with Channel One Russia, Lenfilm Film Studio, Message Film, Art & Popcorn
Cast: Milan Maric, Danila Kozlovsky, Helena Sujecka, Artur Beschastny, Anton Shagin, Svetlana Khodchenkova, Elena Lyadova, Piotr Gasowski, Eva Gerr, Hanna Sleszynska
Director: Alexey German Jr.
Screenwriters: Alexey German Jr., Yulia Tupikina
Producers: Dariusz Jablonski, Isabella Wojcik, Wioleta Kaminska, Miroslav Mogorovich
Executive producers: Andrey Savelyev, Artem Vasilyev, Konstantin Ernst
Olga Yuntunen, Alexey Lvovich
Director of photography: Lukasz Zal
Production and costume designer: Elena Okopnaya
Editors: Sergey Ivanov, Darya Gladysheva
World sales: Alpha Violet