The Geographer Drank His Globe Away: Film Review

A clueless Russian geography teacher drinks to forget to sad and occasionally funny effect.

Konstantin Khabensky stars in Alexander Veledinsky's adaptation of Alexei Ivanov's irreverent, tragicomic novel, which won awards in Odessa and Sochi.

Though he can barely read a map, a cranky but lovable biologist becomes a provincial geography teacher in the tragicomedy The Geographer Drank His Globe Away (Geograf globus propil), Russian director Alexander Veledinsky's adaptation of the bestseller by Alexei Ivanov. The film has been a hit at Russophone festivals, taking home top jury honors at both Sochi and Odessa. The Odessa audience award win also bodes well for the film's local release, scheduled for Nov. 7 on a pretty wide 400 screens. Further festival action is assured, though theatrical sales might be limited by the relatively mainstream nature of the material, especially once it leaves its bleak provincial city setting for the countryside.

Cantankerous Victor (Konstantin Khabensky) is desperate for work and manages, despite being a biologist by training, to talk his way into a geography-teacher position at a high school in Perm, in the Russian boondocks (it's over 1,000 miles east of Moscow). But the kids in his classes are an unruly bunch and his life at home with his wife, Nadya (Elena Lyadova), offers little reprieve, as the two bicker like there's no tomorrow -- at least, until Nadya suggests they get a divorce.

Things start to look up when Victor's old buddy, Budkin (Alexander Robak), moves into the Soviet-era high-rise on the opposite side of the street, mainly because that means Victor has company for his drinking-to-forget sessions and Veledinsky -- by way of novelist Ivanov -- has an excuse to introduce more colorful, if one-note, female characters, including Budkin's ex-girlfriend, (Anna Ukolova), whose knowledge of geography is as small as Victor's; Kira (Evgenia Khirivskaya), a sexy German teacher at school and, lastly, an unexpected love interest for Budkin. Unsurprisingly, the women are all strictly observed from a male point of view.

Ivanov's novel was set in the 1990s and its protagonists were about a decade younger than the fortysomethings shown here. Just after the fall of Communism, the future of the characters was also more uncertain than the one in this contemporary update, which, at least initially, seems to suggest that life is and will remain as bleak and stagnant as current-day, winter-time provincial Russia.

Though it's possible to see the protagonist as a dark but ubiquitous example of a frustrated Russian male who has an uncertain handle on the present and not much hope for the future, the film's second half, in which Victor takes a class out for an adventure-filled outdoors trip, weakens this impression by too frequently foregrounding superficial action instead of psychology (imagine The River Wild with Meryl Streep as a sad Russian drunkard rather than anything more novelistic).

Geographer's generous, if often quick, moments of humor give audiences welcome moments of respite from the otherwise dour tone and tragicomic characters. But the film's biggest asset is without a doubt Khabensky, whose performance, justly rewarded at Sochi, ensures audiences will take a shine to what's essentially a sad-sack loser protagonist.

The reported budget of $4 million ensures craft contributions are solid across the board, with cinematographer Vladimir Bashta (Fortress of War) delivering especially fine work in the film's tricky river-set sequences and production designer Vladimir Gudilin's indoor and outdoor locations all chosen to highlight the drab, unpleasant day-to-day reality of Victor's life.

Venue: Odessa International Film Festival
Production companies: Marmot Film, Krasnaya Strela
Cast: Konstantin Khabensky, Elena Lyadova, Anna Ukolova, Evgenia Khirivskaya, Alexander Robak, Agrippina Steklova, Victor Uzun, Anfisa Chernykh, Andrei Prytkov, Ilya Ilyinykh, Mikhail Leontiev
Director: Alexander Veledinsky
Screenwriters: Alexander Veledinsky, Rauf Kubayev, Valery Todorovsky, screenplay based on the novel by Alexei Ivanov
Producers: Vadim Goryainov, Leonid Lebedev, Valery Todorovsky
Director of photography: Vladimir Bashta
Production designer: Vladimir Gudilin
Music: Alexei Zubarev
Costume designer: Lyudmila Gayintseva
Editors: Alexander Veledinsky, Tatyana Prilenskaya
Sales: Ant!pode Sales
No rating, 100 minutes