Review by Anna Bak-Kvapil
Posted on 31 March 2011
Source 35mm print
Boasting a robust slate of films already approved by Sundance, Cannes, Rotterdam and Toronto, the 2011 New Directors/New Films festival sets expectations high for its 40th anniversary. Some choices, like director Dennis Villeneuve’s tricky, politically opaque Incendies (Canada’s entry for the 2011 Academy Awards) and Daniel and Diego Vega’s Peruvian character study Octubre (Cannes 2010 Un Certain Regard winner), live up to their reputations. Others, like Anne Sewitsky’s Norwegian comedy of re-marriage, Happy Happy (Sundance 2011 Grand Jury Prize for World Cinema winner) and opening night film Margin Call, a hokey drama about the 2008 market crash, starring heavyweights Kevin Spacey and Jeremy Irons, fall disappointingly flat. There isn’t much in the way of levity or eye candy to be found, favored themes being the melancholy dreariness of daily life and the horrors of political unrest. (With so many selections sharing the same brownish gray color palette, I began to wonder if the projector simply hadn’t been cleaned in a while.) The most high profile films have imminent theatrical release dates, but some of the best entries in the festival are among the least heralded, including the Japanese comedy Hospitalité, and the French coming of age tale Belle Epine. Accordingly, the focus of reviews here will be on the good - and the not so good - in New Directors/New Films selections currently lacking U.S. distribution.
“Winter. I’m sick of winter,” a mafia contact tells Mozerov, a cab driver hiring him to disfigure his daughter. Gromozeka exudes bleakness as it follows the midlife crises of three sad sack Russian men in Moscow. The trio are connected by their past as members of the titular high school band, named after a well-known accident-prone Russian cartoon character. Their musical background is established in a wordless opening scene as young boys with guitars stroll through the halls of a school. Now middle-aged men, they sing drunken karaoke and huddle in a sauna together. When they ask each other how their lives are going, each responds “fine.” But of course, being Russian, they aren’t.
Vasya, a life long member of the police force, is demoted from active duty to night watchman for a meat processing plant, unaware that his wife has had a boyfriend for years, and his son is a mafia thug for hire. The cab driver Mozerov is beaten up by his fares, and sent into a fugue state of depression when he discovers his daughter acts in dirty movies rather than going to college. Eduard is a surgeon who kills a child when he bungles a simple appendectomy, and gives up trying to relate to both his wife and mistress when he self diagnoses an inoperable tumor in his lungs. While convincing in their roles, it can be difficult to differentiate between the pale, potato-like faces of the actors, their eyes perpetually screwed up against the freezing weather.
The men have no contact with each other apart from the opening and closing scenes, but their paths intersect with characters holding critical places in their respective lives. Mozerov unwittingly ferries first the mother of the dead child, then a prostitute to their appointments with his friends, and a hit man turns out to be the son of Vasya the policeman. The conceit is a stale one, and the stories of the men could have worked as separate narrative strands, without the distracting appearance of faces from other sections of the film.
Shot on 16mm and transferred to 35mm, Gromozeka has a gritty, dim look that enhances the grimness of icy streets and decrepit apartment buildings. Director Vladimir Kott likes to frame a single character in the center of the screen and wait for their reactions to trauma. When Mozerov realizes that his daughter stars in the smut he rented, the camera holds on him as he moans and pulls his red and white striped beanie over his eyes. The technique works once or twice, but loses impact through repetition. Fanciful sequences that seem inspired by Roy Andersson attempt to leaven the misery—a sheep dog waits for an elevator and gets on alone, Vasya does tai chi in the meat processing plant, surrounded by racks of carcasses, and Eduard hires a prostitute to stroke his head and soothe him “like a mother.”
When Gromozeka becomes sentimental in the final act, it loses the edge of black comedy that made it palatable. Kott sympathizes with men who have brought unhappiness upon themselves through destructive and largely idiotic actions. Self-pitying misogynistic rage bubbles over. The policeman can’t sleep with his wife, so he thuggishly brutalizes her boyfriend. The cab driver can’t stand the promiscuity of his daughter, so he personally mutilates her. The doctor can’t bear the emotional drain of his wife and lover, so he resigns himself to death. Vasya’s wife is an adulterous harpie, Mozerov’s daughter is a lying tramp, Eduard’s wife is a distant ice queen. As the daughter is being loaded into an ambulance with third degree burns, she hugs Mozerov with a beatific smile on her face, happy to be saved from her life of debauchery. The director has said that his film is an exploration of the Russian soul. Perhaps he should have added, the male Russian soul.