Is Russian Cinema Really So Bad?


First, we should sadly admit that Russian cinema has some problems. We can't deny it. Still, in 2012, Oleg Berezin, the head of «Nevafilm» (the company, which is engaged in film dubbing and film market analysis), said that 95% of Russian cinema is «popcorn,» or entertaining movies, and only 5% of it is the so-called arthouse. Almost nothing has changed since then.

by Anastasia Odintsova


It happens mostly because the governmental financial support is received either by a certain circle of proven directors or by those who are ready to make films performing precise socio-political functions. Simply put, only patriotic movies can be made at state expense. And those who are left behind have to choose either to make commercially successful but pointless movies, or to invest a lot of money in independent cinema, which won't be able to get in wide film distribution and, as a result, is unlikely to pay off.

The picture is dramatic. But, as you know, difficulties only harden. Therefore, new independent directors who are ready to create high-quality films regularly appear in Russia. And our movies are not uncommon at foreign film festivals. If you still don't believe in the possibilities of Russian cinema, I suggest you get acquainted with the significant, though a not so large layer of Russian cinema — arthouse.

Russian arthouse is accused of one-sidedness and being too noir. It really has freed itself from the function of only bringing pleasure and shows a critical image of reality, which exposes the painful sides of society. If you decide to watch Russian arthouse, most likely you will see a film with social implications and grim pictures of Russian life. But this is a high point of Russian independent cinema. It can be rightfully called intellectual. Of course, it often leaves behind a weird and sad aftertaste, though also a lot of thoughts and reflections. So, the profundity of social problems covered is the thing that distinguishes Russian arthouse.

Arthouse unites many different types of cinema. First, let's have a look at auteur cinema. Kirill Serebrennikov, Alexander Sokurov, Andrey Zvyagintsev, Boris Khlebnikov, Kantemir Balagov are just the beginning of the list of reputable Russian auteur cinema directors. It's difficult to speak about auteur cinema just in a couple of pages, but let's try to do this from a personal angle. I am sure that many people have watched at least one art film or even have their favourite movie or the one which they could recommend. So do I.

The first film that I want to draw your attention to is The Geographer Drank His Globe Away («Географ глобус пропил», 2013). It is based on the homonymous novel by Alexey Ivanov, though it has numerous digressions. The action takes place in Perm, the provincial Russian city. The main character is the biologist Viktor Sluzhkin (Konstantin Khabensky). He was fired from the research institution. The situation with work is difficult in the city. In order to provide for his family, he is forced to get a job at school as a geography teacher. Victor is a typical example of a Russian province resident. He works for a meager salary and huddles in a one-room apartment with his wife Nadya (Elena Lyadova) and their little daughter. Poverty has made the relationship with his wife so bad that they no longer have sex and even don't sleep together. And Victor often drinks out of boredom.

A difficult relationship between Sluzhkin and his pupils lurks in the background of his main story. He considers them too dissolute, stupid, and unable to dream of anything great. At first, they try to mock him, but he only despises them more. Only one girl called Masha (Anfisa Chernykh) attracts Victor's attention because her intelligence and thoughtfulness make her radically different from her peers. Victor soon realizes that he is falling in love with this pure girl, still unspoiled with disgusting life. Along with it he flirts with a German teacher and suffers from his wife's infidelity. Victor tries to get out of this tangled circle. Surprisingly, his pupils help him.

The film immerses you into the gray and depressing landscapes of Russian province from the first minute. At the beginning of the film the main character appears in the background of the installation «Happiness is not far off,» putting the word «not» in the back. This is the bitter irony of life in the Russian province and, in fact, the idea of the whole film.
Another remarkable movie is Arrhythmia (Аритмия, 2017). Once again, the action takes place in Russian province, the city of Yaroslavl. The main characters are Oleg (Aleksandr Yatsenko) and Katya (Irina Gorbacheva), a young married couple. Both of them work as doctors and live in a small one-room apartment. At some point, Katya gets tired of Oleg's indifference and drunkenness, and she decides to divorce him, temporarily evicting him on a cot in the kitchen. The problems get worse by the fact that Oleg's new boss introduces strict rules. Oleg can't work only for results and reports: he believes that doctors should treat patients with care. The endless routine, problems at work and with his wife, whom he loves, indeed, eventually lead Oleg to a nervous breakdown. This film is somewhat similar to the previous one, as it also shows the impact of social problems on people's relationships. But it's shown in a close-up here.
It is important to mention another phenomenon of modern Russian cinema — regional cinema. Russia is a multi-ethnic country, and the regions are inhabited by different ethnic groups, which all have their own special cultural codes. This is reflected in the cinema of different nations. For example, Bashkirs and Tatars make their own films. But today Yakut cinema is a real breakthrough. Yakutia has been creating its own cinema for more than 20 years, but exactly right now, when the film market is already oversaturated with one-type mass movies, Yakut cinema is gaining well-deserved popularity. Yakut films star at film festivals. For example, at the 31st «Kinotavr» the main prize was awarded to Scarecrow («Пугало», 2020). (You can read more about the phenomenon of Yakut cinema in another our article).
As you see, Russian cinema can be diverse. To say definitively whether it is good or bad, we should separate mass cinema with light and unserious content, which aim is to attract as many viewers as possible and to make money, and art cinema, which focuses on the quality and sharpness of the issues covered. But most often people don't know much about such movies, because they are not widely shown in film distribution and are rarely discussed in the media. To destroy stereotypes about high-quality Russian cinema, it's important to talk more about it. One of the greatest examples of a medium that does so is «Bes of Culture». It tries to enlighten the audience in the sphere of Russian cinema and tell it about qualitative films and series. By the way, authors of this online magazine not only analyze niche movies, but also find the noteworthy mass ones. This fact again proves the groundlessness of the idea that all Russian is extremely bad.
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