'Paradise (Rai)': Film Review | Venice 2016

Paradise - Still - H - 2016
Courtesy of Venice International Film Festival
Audacious attempt to combine Holocaust backdrop with metaphysical-tinged romance falls short of its lofty ambitions.

Russian veteran Andrei Konchalovsky vies again for the Golden Lion at the Italian festival with this WW2-themed German-Russian co-production.

Visions of heaven bedevil the romantically tormented protagonists of Andrei Konchalovsky's Paradise (Rai), a somber and ambitious tale of love and loss set during Europe's most hellish mid-century days. But strong performances and outstanding cinematography aren't enough to rescue an unfocused and episodic screenplay, which will leave many stranded in a purgatorial cinematic-halfway house between bliss and despair.

International prospects for this self-consciously old-fashioned Russian-German co-production will depend heavily on its fortunes in the Venice competition, where veteran director/co-writer Konchalovsky's track record stretches back more than 50 years. He first contended on the Lido way back in 1965 with his debut The First Teacher, faring best when landing runner-up honors with House of Fools (2002) and again two years ago with his last outing, The Postman's White Nights.

It's a shame that there's no Venice technical prize, as the great Russian DoP Alexander Simonov would surely have one hand on such a trophy. Simonov shot several features for Russia's much-missed maverick genius Alexei Balabanov, including the phenomenal Cargo 200 (2007) and Me Too (2012), and collaborated brilliantly with Konchalovsky on the semi-documentary The Postman's White Nights.

Here he works chiaroscuro wonders with what the end credits identify as a combination of 35mm and 16mm stock (projected digitally at Venice), his 4:3 black-and-white images and complex lighting set-ups often harking back to golden-age monochrome cinematography. The look is a neat fit for the 1942-4 period during which most of the narrative unfolds, the boxy ratio serving to emphasize the harsh constrictions of wartime and later, the infernal claustrophobia of the hideously crowded death camps.  

Confinement is a constant leitmotif from the very first shot, as Russian noblewoman Olga (House of Fools star Julia Vysotskaya), is arrested and imprisoned in occupied France for helping shelter a pair of Jewish children. The next day, she is politely quizzed by bourgeois mid-ranking police officer Jules (Christian Duquesne), a schlubby family-man who makes no effort to hide his amour-fou infatuation with the glamorous, fiery aristocrat fate has thrown into his lap.

Sensing her opportunity, Olga sensually reciprocates — only for Jules to be assassinated by Resistance fighters shortly before their planned tryst. Olga ends up in an unidentified concentration camp run along textbook-cruel Nazi lines by the bullying Krauss (Peter Kurth), but her luck takes a turn when the camp's shady financial operations are audited by Helmut (Christian Clauss), a blue-blooded old flame. Rekindling their romance in very different circumstances, the pair — seeing that the tide of war is quickly turning against the Nazis — plot their escape to the colony of Nueva Germania in far-off Paraguay. Complications ensue.

Konchalovsky's screenplay, co-written with Elena Kiseleva, is structured around numerous interview extracts in which Jules, Olga and Helmut address the camera directly and separately, speaking to an unseen interviewer whose questions are elided via deliberately rough edits. The identity of this interlocutor is revealed only in the end credits, though the posthumous nature of these chats becomes apparent around the time Jules abruptly bites the dust.

It's a conceit that always feels more gimmicky than organic, distancing the viewer from the characters, their emotions and their milieu, as well as hindering narrative flow and sapping momentum. Konchalovsky indulges in some brief flights of ill-advised creative fancy, as when a harrowing round-up of condemned Jewish people is presented as though it's been caught by hidden documentary cameras — complete with scratchy sound-recording.

Further unwelcome aural distraction is provided by some very conspicuous post-synch dubbing — all of Viktor Sukhorukov's lines in his one long scene as an oddly bald version of Heinrich Himmler are palpably voiced by another actor, one Thomas Darchinger. Sukhorukov appears to be speaking Russian than German throughout this sequence, and even Vysotskaya and Clauss have occasional post-synch spells — acceptable in previous epochs of international cinema, but surprising indeed in 2016. The actors themselves cope well with such indignities, however: Clauss' Helmut is a fascinatingly deluded, idealistic Nazi torn between bestial and noble impulses; the striking Vysotskaya's Olga a moving study in resourcefulness, stoic suffering and desperate sacrifice.

Production company: Andrei Konchalovsky Studios, Drife Filmproduktion
Cast: Julia Vysotskaya, Christian Clauss, Philippe Duquesne, Peter Kurth, Jakob Diehl, Vera Voronkova, Viktor Sukhorukov
Director: A
ndrei Konchalovsky
Screenwriters: Andrei Konchalovsky, Elena Kiseleva
Producers: Andrei Konchalovsky, Florian Deyle
Executive producer: Olesya Gidrat
Cinematographer: Alexander Simonov
Production designers: Irina Ochina, Josef Sanktjohanser
Costume designers: Dmitry Andreev, Vladimir Nikiforov
Editor: Ekaterina Vesheva
Composer: Sergei Shustitsky
Casting: Uwe Bunker, Constance DemontoyElina Ternyaeva
Sales: ARRI Media International, Munich, Germany
No Rating, 132 minutes