Monday, January 4, 2010

Review: Vanished Empire

Director Karen Shakhnazarov's Vanished Empire can most succinctly be described as an amalgam of the book Catcher in the Rye and the Coen bros' recent film A Serious Man, but set in 1970's Soviet Russia. The similarities to Salinger's novel in particular are quite pronounced, and the film almost reads like a back-door screen adaption of the notoriously anti-Hollywood author's work. Our Slavic Holden Caulfield is Sergey, a freshman at some generic Moscow university who spends his time striking up neglectful relationships with co-eds and pawning off his grandfather's antique literature to pay for vodka and contraband Western LPs.
To an American, Vanished Empire feels at first blush like a typical European existentialist coming of age film; the camera work is mostly handheld and sloppy, events transpire without much explanation, and it is all cast in a flat, beige color palette. While this film mostly falls under that description, it does have a few aspects that make it worth watching. First is the acting. All the players are quite naturalistic and understated, which is par for the course with regard to European cinema. The standout performance, however, is delivered by newcomer to the screen Yegor Baranovsky as Sergey's earnest best friend and classmate Stepan. Though not the focus of the film, Baranovsky brings a smoldering honesty to the role that cements him as the moral and emotional center of the piece. As Sergey makes increasingly morally questionable choices, ergo becoming difficult to sympathize with, we are able to latch onto Stepan as an anchor of integrity.
Another value that this film has, especially to a Westerner, is as a window into the later years of the Soviet Union. During much of the 20th century, the USSR was painted as the Evil Empire, and there was not much importation into this country of their culture and arts; this is a drought that persists even today. So films like this one are invaluable to help humanize a people who were our supposed enemies.
Thirdly on the short list of reasons to see Vanished Empire is the final scene. We'll not spoil it here, but rest assured that it makes the entire experience worthwhile. It is a coda like none this critic can think of.