Film Reviews

PERESTROIKA

By • May 25th, 2009 •

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Perestroika means restructuring, re-building.

This is a personal account of an ex-Russian (Sasha Greenberg, astrophysicist of Jewish descent played by Sam Robards) coming back to the land of his youth. During his three days in Moscow (the duration of a conference on the structure of the universe) the protagonist re-lives and revises his entire life.

Many a time he had to rebuild himself – while adjusting to life within the regime marked by anti-Semitism, coming to live in a different country, working on a project that compromised his ideals, relating to his strong-headed women, meeting his old friends and enemies with whom he hadn’t been in touch for the last 17 years, facing his midlife crisis, coming to peace within himself…

Against the chimerical Milky Way of a backdrop – the Soviet parades’ old documentaries and contemporary singing gypsies, troika rides alongside raging babushkas fighting for the vodka bottles, grey memories of classrooms meetings and a lavish set of dancing Hasidim, the density of Russian kitchen talks and the views from a spacious New York apartment – Sasha strives to trace the constellations of his past to illuminate his present.
The film struck me with its clarity and brightness, depth and simplicity, allegorical mysticism and precise attention to detail. With the aim of de-constructing the nesting doll of “Reconstruction” I met with the writer/director Slava Tsukerman, who was one of the honorees at the celebration of Russian/American heritage and culture at New York City Hall (05/07/2009)

We conversed in Russian.

FIR: The film is obviously autobiographical, but to what extent?

ST: When I was younger I couldn’t understand how people write about their own life. With PERESTROIKA it happened to me naturally. Having left the Soviet Union in 1973 I am intimately familiar with the details of emigration, immigration and coming back after 17 years. I remember returning to Russia in 1989 for the Moscow International Film Festival. When I asked my friends – immigrants, who already visited Moscow – to recommend me a hotel they said: “Do you think you’d be allowed to sleep?”

FIR: That’s exactly what happened to Sasha. But my question is about what is embodied in his cosmology of soul, so to speak, whether it is something that concerns you. In Sasha’s case it’s emphasized by his very profession – astrophysics…

ST: Writing my protagonist as a film director – though Fellini’s “8 1/2” is one of my favorites of all times – wouldn’t be the right decision for this film. The choice for his field to be astrophysics was based on the premise that the metaphorical logic of it deals with the structure of the Universe: the man wants to understand how the world ticks, but can’t understand even his own life. Also for quite some time I thought of making a film about a physicist, about the moral responsibility of someone who creates a bomb. I knew a few astrophysicists when I lived in my old country, but outside of Russia the connection with the Russian world of science was broken, and even after we shot the film I wasn’t quite sure if a real physicist would come to Sasha’s dramatic conclusion – why bother trying to understand the structure of the universe if you can’t even get a clear idea about the structure of your personal life? When we were finishing editing I met a Russian astrophysicist who was teaching at NYU, and he confirmed that not only such a physicist could exist, but that there was a real might-be-prototype – Victoriy Shvartsman – who took his own life, being tortured by the same conclusion.

All the major characters have their real life twins.

FIR: There is the monumental figure of professor Gross, Sasha’s teacher, who doesn’t question the truth of “Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s.” Is there also a thread of the prodigal son theme woven into their relationship?

ST: Yes. Leaving America for Russia, Dr. Gross put himself in a position of the prodigal son, then his fate is reversed in the actions of his student. By the way, Murray Abraham (Gross) was absolutely delighted to create such a biblical character.

FIR: Russian Sasha is played – and very convincingly – by American Sam Robards. He speaks accented English, and so do all the Russians played by the Russian actors but not as convincingly. What was the rationale behind this decision?

ST: There was a dilemma in regards to the language. I could have made the characters speaking their own language, which would make the Moscow scenes more natural, but in that case Sasha would have to be played by a Russian and two thirds of the film’s dialogue would be in Russian. It would be a different film. Meanwhile I had to think about the distribution of PERESTROIKA too.

On the other hand, using English for all dialogue made it more theatrical in style, which fits the metaphorical nature of the picture.

FIR: The film’s events take place in 1992, when the Soviet Union collapsed, and its release we witnessed just now, in 2009. When did you write the script?

ST: In 1992. Initially I wanted this film to be more irritating, more thought-provoking. And I was toying with more plot lines too – dealing with Sasha’s grown up son, and concerning his mother. But I had to give them up, as they couldn’t fit seamlessly into the structure of the film. We almost started it in 1992 as an American-Russian co-production but at that time a heavy inflation had spread in Russia, and my Russian financiers disappeared, which made the American part of the team feel uneasy. Only years later were we able to produce the film. The delay made it better, I think. Time distance adds perspective to the story.

PERESTROIKA’s reception was mixed. Some people loved the film, and others didn’t ‘get it’. For Slava, who follows the philosophy of Mejerhold, the controversial reaction to the film is definitely a sign of success. “It makes people think,” he says.

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