By Gerald Peary.
We’ve reached a sad situation in America where even sophisticated art house audiences balk at foreign-language films except those made in a handful of favored countries: France above all, Spain if it’s Pedro Almodovar, Israel if you are Jewish, and perhaps, though really rarely, Germany, Italy, Denmark, Iran, China, Japan, South Korea, Mexico, or Argentina. That’s definitely it. No wonder that the MFA’s Global Lens 2013 series, through June 19, a showcase of international narrative cinema without US distribution, features, among the 10 selections, films from Brazil, Chile, Egypt, India, Iraq, and Serbia. And Kazakhstan.
Will you venture to the MFA if I tell you that the movie from Kazakhstan is made by the country’s greatest director, Darezhan Omirbaev, who is a prize winner at Cannes? And that his new feature, Student (Saturday, June 8, at 3 p.m., Sunday, June 9, 10:30 a.m.), is a very credible and effective transposition of Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment from nineteenth-century St. Petersburg to today in Almaty, Kazahkstan’s largest city.
The bespectacled student, the unnamed Raskolnikov character, is, for most of the movie, a watcher and an absorber rather than a talker. And what he sees is his post-Soviet Union, Muslim country splitting rich and poor as it dons the shiny coat of capitalism. Western tourists, consider: the almighty Almaty boasts multi-lane, Moscow-like boulevards and lavish, European automobiles, and glass-encased skyscrapers seemingly erected everywhere. And new billionaires abound, though some of them are, let’s admit it, flashy gangsters. Great stuff? Yes, according to the student’s woman professor, who delivers a stirring lecture espousing naked Social Darwinism—“The strong eat the weak, That is life”—and attacking the old Soviet approach to society: “Happiness can’t be reached in a herd.”
Our Raskolnikov is left out of the economic miracle. He lives, as did the Dostoevsky protagonist, in a student hovel. Somehow he gets money for a gun and, as in the Russian novel, he commits a couple of arbitrary killings. It takes a long time in the movie before he explains why, again, as in the Russian master, confessing to the daughter of an impoverished poet: “I wanted to test myself. To see if I’m capable of real action, or a coward who just talks, like most people.”
Our Raskolnikov has a student friend, a young philosopher, who prattles not of post-Communism but of post-modernism and of the fact that most people in the post-modern world are expendable, useless. Our Raskolnikov is glaringly one of these, the have-nots, and the murders don’t change his status or his pitiful sense of self. Before giving himself into the police, adhering to the novel, our self-loathing protagonist describes himself in a distinctly post-Dostoevsky way. The subtitle, translated from Kazakh: “I turned out to be a wimp.”
I saw two more features from the MFA’s busy first weekend of the Global Lens series. Sebastián Silva’s Chilean black comedy Life Kills Me (Sunday, June 9. 3:15, also Wednesday, June 12, 6 p.m.) is quite funny during the scenes on the set of a tacky, tawdry horror movie but becomes uncomfortable when a queasy second plot kicks in about a psychotic guy who enjoys watching birds, cats, and people die. Nahid Ghobadi and Bijan Zamanpira’s Iranian-made About 111 Girls (Friday, June 7, and Saturday, June 8) has a great premise—111 Kurdish women are threatening suicide because there are no men to marry them—and then botches it via a stagnant, nowhere road movie.
I haven’t yet watched what is the most heralded and controversial film in the series, Srdjan Dragojevic’s Serbian The Parade (Friday, June 7, 8 p.m., Saturday, June 8, 10:30 a.m.), co-presented by the Boston LGBT Film Festival. The film is supposedly a raucous send-up surrounding a gay rights parade in Belgrade and obviously important for confronting the still-verboten issue of open homosexuality in raw Eastern Europe. Just last week, several gay pride marches in the Ukraine and Russia were met by ultra-right violence, seemingly condoned by the openly homophobic Orthodox Church.