A Long and Happy Life (Dolgaya Schastlivaya Zhizn): Berlin Review

A Long Happy Life Dolgaya schastlivaya zhizn - H 2013

A Long Happy Life Dolgaya schastlivaya zhizn - H 2013

Once upon a time in the Wild East.

Boris Khlebnikov’s stark Golden Bear contender highlights the trials of Russian farmers in an age of austerity.

BERLIN - Partly inspired by the classic Gary Cooper western High Noon, director Boris Khlebnikov’s Berlin competition feature is an elemental tale of rural conflict in contemporary Russia which might equally have been set in Dostoevsky’s time. Starkly shot on hand-held digital camera in natural light by former Berlinale cinematography prize-winner Pavel Kostomarov, A Long and Happy Life boasts an agreeably raw lo-fi aesthetic, even if this low-key human tragedy ultimately proves too slight for the volcanic passions it seeks to evoke. Further festival interest seems probable, though overseas box office interest will likely not extend much beyond connoisseurs of vintage Eastern Bloc bleak-chic.

Brooding Shia LaBeouf lookalike Alexander Yatsenko stars as Alex Sergeevich, aka Sasha, an intense young man who has left the city to run a dilapidated farm in a picturesque wooded backwater near Murmansk in northern Russia. Facing a compulsory purchase order from the local authorities, Sasha is initially defiant and resentful, but he agrees to take the generous compensation and vacate the property. However, when his sympathies are swayed by a “mini revolution” among his impoverished workers, he changes his mind and cancels the deal.

As he prepares for potentially violent showdown with the police and authorities, Sasha is initially hailed as a hero by local villagers. But one by one they desert him, citing family commitments, unpaid wages or jobs elsewhere. “You shouldn’t have listened to us,” one of them protests, “we’re morons.” A further pressure on Sasha’s divided loyalties is his semi-secret lover Anya (Anna Kotova), who works at the land reform office and has romantic plans buy a city apartment with him. Something clearly has to give.

Brief and bitter, in pointed defiance of its ironic title, A Long and Happy Life has the right ingredients for a fatalistic social drama in the grand Russian tradition. The plot is riven with human conflict, the bare-bones style has its own austere poetry, and the naturalistic performances are all competent. But the casual speed with which the workers desert Sasha, followed by his psychologically crucial shift from principled employer to mad-as-hell outlaw, both feel rushed and unconvincing. Thus the film’s climactic lurch into lethal violence seems a little too contrived, a sudden blast of western-style melodrama that the preceding story has not earned.

Venue: Berlin Film Festival (Competition), February 9

Production company: Koktebel Film Company, Moscow

Producers: Roman Borisevich, Alexander Kushaev

Director: Boris Khlebnikov

Cast: Alexander Yatsenko, Eugene Sitiy, Anna Kotova, Vladimir Korobeinikov

Screenwriters: Alexandra Rodionova, Boris Khlebnikov

Cinematographer: Pavel Kostomarov

Editor: Ivan Lebedev

Sales company: Films Boutique, Berlin

Rating TBC, 77 minutes