Tuesday, 13 September 2011

Room and a Half (2009)

Had you told me in advance that I would be spellbound by a two-hour plus Russian language film by a director I don't know, starring actors unfamiliar to me, and being a biopic of a Nobel Laureate for literature whose name only rings vague bells, I probably would have told you to 'sit on it'.  To prove how wrong preconceptions can be, this is one hell of a fascinating movie.

It's the first feature film from 70-year old director Andrey Khrzhanovskiy, better known as an animator and documentary filmmaker, who brings all of his skills to creating the world of poet/essayist Joseph Brodsky.  It ends with the warning: "This film is fictional. Any resemblance to real persons or events is purely coincidental".  However this is something of a conceit, since Brodsky was a very real person, constantly at odds with the authorities; he was first exiled within Russia, sentenced to 5 years' hard labour and then 'invited to leave' Russia at the age of 32. The authorities refused to recognize him as an 'officially-registered' poet and he was charged with 'social parasitism' (and the great crime of being Jewish as well).  He went to the States where he was a visiting professor at various universities, became a naturalized citizen, won the Nobel Prize for his book of essays in 1987, and died in New York in l996 at the age of 55.

The film is 'fictional' in the sense that the director has taken certain artistic liberties in recreating his childhood and his relationship with his doting parents, his prurient teenaged and young adult 'bohemian' years, and the yearning of his later years.  Khrzhanovskiy has done this by mixing black and white real footage and colourful dramatic reconstructions, with monochrome silhouette and conventional animation.  Brodsky is represented as a lascivious cat (meow-talk was a running joke with his father) and his parents as two black crows, such as the two that he says suddently appeared in his garden after each of their deaths. The actors playing his parents (both of whom give wonderfully warm performances) do not age throughout -- since this is obviously the way he remembered them during his long overseas exile in America.  In his childhood on his walks through St. Petersburg, his father would regale him with the histories of each elegant building and the stories of the families who lived there before the revolution.  At the same time, his family is forced to move from their bourgeois flat to a communal apartment (the room and a half of the title), and threatened as Jews with iminent deportation to the Far East. An animated fantasy of their piano and other cultural musical instruments floating away to the East, as the barbarians flourish, is brilliantly conceived.

The adult Brodsky, again embodied as an unchanging middle-aged man, always wrote and dreamt about returning to St.Petersburg, but never did.  He wrote, "Poets always come back, whether in flesh or on paper.  I like to believe both." His parents, who claim never to have understood his poetry, can only watch the Nobel prizegiving on their small black and white TV (normally tuned to ice skating); they have tried in vain to get permission to visit him overseas, but are constantly told that "your journey is inappropriate".  There is a touching scene near the film's end when the three of them are reuinited around the small table in their old flat in what is now obviously contemporary Russia, long after their respective deaths.  They catch up on all the news and gossip, but they do understand that they are all dead -- or they could not be sitting together.  The film's final dedication is "In Loving Memory of Our Parents".

This is a wonderfully warm and witty film and a bravura example of the filmmaker's art.
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