'Oleg and the Rare Arts' ('Oleg y las raras artes'): Rotterdam Review

Oleg y las raras artes Oleg and the Fine Arts Still - 2016
Courtesy of International Film Festival Rotterdam

Oleg y las raras artes Oleg and the Fine Arts Still - 2016

Eccentricity has seldom been so exquisite.

Andres Duque's portrait of an unorthodox St. Petersburg musician bowed at the Dutch festival before taking top honors at Pamplona.

A mysterious maestro belatedly re-enters the spotlight in Oleg and the Rare Arts (Oleg y las raras artas), Andres Duque's adoring homage to oddball octogenarian Oleg Karavaychuk. A Faberge miniature of a picture at just 66 minutes, this peek into the ethereal realm of the effortlessly engaging pianist/composer took top honors at Pamplona's prestigious Punto de Vista documentary showcase days after premiering to warm reactions at Rotterdam. An exotically high-toned sort of crowd-pleaser from a writer-director previously best known for more challengingly experimental fare, it should find no shortage of further festival exposure and the scherzo running-time is ideal for small-screen play.

Oleg and the Rare Arts quickly emerged from left-field as a genuine "buzz" title at Rotterdam, generating considerable interest among programmers, journalists and critics in attendance. But it also scored highly among the pubic in the Audience Award voting, landing a very respectable 26th place in a 178-strong field — narrowly ahead of Laurie Anderson's similarly quirky non-fictioner Heart of a Dog. It looks sure to extend the renown of Venezuela-born, Barcelona-educated Duque, previously of mainly coterie interest among cinephiles who lapped up his diaristic musings in Color Runaway Dog (2011) and Dress Rehearsals For Utopia (2012).

Duque — who profiled maverick Basque director Ivan Zulueta in 2004's 52-minute Ivan Z — adopts a relatively conventional mode. In a productive break from his usual m.o., he's handed key creative duties to others this time around, with Carmen Torres handling cinematography and Felix Duque the editing. Torres' lushly high-contrast images, full of vibrant color and deep shadow, provide a suitably heightened if unfussy portal into Oleg's world — a zone of what is clearly one astronomically refined sensibility.

The 88-year-old is first seen in an opulent corridor of the Hermitage museum in St. Petersburg, decked out in his trademark maroon beret — out from under which a luxuriant thatch of long brown hair (real?) cascades. A small, stick-thin, sharp-featured, baggy-jumpered figure of indeterminate gender — his quiveringly high-pitched voice provides little clue — Oleg advances towards the tripod-fixed camera delivering a trilling rumination in Russian on the state of things ("people have lost their soul"). Tiresias-like, he urges us to "contemplate the horizon of history," coming across in the manner of an emissary from a Samuel Beckett play, an impossibly distant epoch — or even, perhaps, another planet.

Many would be quite happy to listen to Karavaychuk's erudite, bygone idiosyncrasies for hours. But in further episodes he gets to show off his virtuoso and disconcertingly experimental piano skills — including a stint on Czar Nicholas's elaborately gilded instrument, no less. Famous for performing with a pillow-case on his head, and/or in a near-horizontal reclining position, Karavaychuk has always been as much theorist and innovator as composer/interpreter/performer.

And Duque — who's plainly besotted with his bizarrely charismatic protagonist — allows him plentiful time to expound his philosophies of consonance and dissonance, among other more esoteric topics. Natural fibers are the key to a long life, confides this beguilingly gentle chap who's endearingly happy to contemplate his own genius — "my melodies are uncomfortable but they're brilliant" — and who is unwavering in his cultivation of of "my divine style, my divine rhythm."

A welcome open-air sojourn is provided during a mid-section that takes us to the atmospherically woodsy settlement of Komarovo, where Stalin provided free dachas to state-approved artists — Karavaychuk, a magnificently shameless name-dropper, used to have the illustrious likes of Tarkovsky, Akhmatova and Shostakovich as neighbors. Karavaychuk's gratitude to the murderous dictator, for whom he performed when only a small child, is undimmed by the passing of time. He refers wistfully to "the wisdom of the Great Leader" and evidently has no difficulty in being simultaneously Stalinist and snobbishly imperialist/royalist — though he's scornfully dismissive of Vladimir Putin and his philistine circle.

Such intriguing avenues of thought are left unexplored by director/acolyte Duque, who adopts a very low-key approach here — though by no means a fly-on-the-wall one, as the practicalities of the filming process are blithely and amusingly addressed by Karavaychuk on numerous occasions. He's no stranger to such practices, of course, having previously appeared in a handful of features between 1961 and 1970, and boasting more than 60 composing screen-credits to his name — most notably collaborations with his fellow Ukrainian, the revered director Kira Muratova.

The IMDb actually lists him as composer on Kote Mikaberidze's My Grandmother from 1929, when he was barely two years old — presumably a cataloguing gaffe of some kind. Then again, given Karavaychuk's extreme precocity and prodigiousness, alternative explanations can't be entirely ruled out.

Production company: Estudi Playtime
Director / Screenwriter: Andres Duque
Producers: Marta Andreu, Tania Ballo
Executive producers: Lluis Minarro, Serrana Torres
Cinematographer: Carmen Torres
Editor: Felix Duque
Composer: Oleg Karavaychuk
Sound: Boris Alexeev
Sales: Estudi Playtime, Barcelona
No rating, 66 minutes