The Vladimir Putin era has seen its share of time capsule cinema, films that revisit the recent Soviet past to interrogate or rehabilitate Russian identity. Aleksei Uchitel’s sepia-toned melodrama Dreaming of Space (2005), a domestic hit that went undistributed in the U.S., voyages to 1961, inhaling the nationalist pride of Yuri Gagarin’s first manned mission into space without worrying over Cold War realities. Dreaming of Space celebrated loyalty, capitulation, and Russo-romanticism while begrudging the exoticism of the West, a Putin-worthy show of positivism and selective reclamation. Meanwhile, though it’s doubtful that any officials would endorse a film about a sadistic, homicidal cop, Alexey Balabanov’s bad trip back to 1983, Cargo 200 (2008) also identified the root of Russia’s latter-day malaise as the creeping advancement of Western (free) capitalism.
Even the fantasy contraptions Night Watch (2005) and Day Watch (2007), signature blockbusters of the post-Soviet era and crossover hits to boot, are framed by an original sin—a father absconding from paternal responsibility—that occurs in 1991, right at the advent of post-Soviet society (and apparently right when baggy sweaters and shaggy hair were a menace to fashion). These films writ large the struggles of a culture continually at war with itself, pitting a shambling Soviet-seeming brotherhood against new-moneyed vampires and ending with a carefully calibrated stasis, a surprisingly nuanced, if also politically convenient, take on Russian character. All of these films operate under the assumption that the national identity was compromised, but they submit different theories of when it happened, what exactly happened, and what an undefiled Russia looked like or could look like again. Was it agrarian, civilized, religious, idealist, pragmatic, poetic? Since the Soviets were most effective at bundling these elements under a unifying ideology, it’s no wonder why otherwise intense memories can be so selective on this front, and why Putin has been so successful in appropriating Soviet pomp, if not circumstance.
In plot and milieu, Karen Shakhnazarov’s new film The Vanished Empire calls to mind Dreaming of Space, as both speak to the present through wistful remembrances and pop cultural artifacts. But Shakhnazarov’s film is neither as grand as its title nor as modest as its familiar coming-of-age narrative would infer, and that’s a relief. Click here to read the rest of Eric Hynes’s review of The Vanished Empire.