It’s a new year, but nostalgia still rules Russian film

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Nostalgia used to be saved for special occasions. Now it’s a neverending business – and not just in the west. Russian blockbuster season opened on New Year’s Eve – which, as the start of the winter holidays, is a far more significant deal in that country – and the most important release window of the year for local films is being lined up as the perfect opportunity to get audiences harking back. Top of the pile of this year’s releases is a remake of 1971 comedy Dzhentlmeny Udachi (Gentlemen of Fortune), one of a mini-oeuvre of classic Soviet-era films that, over the years, have become required misty-eyed viewing over the herring salad and vodka.

Paid-up reminiscers have Bazelevs – the production company run by Timur Bekmambetov (Wanted; Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter) – to thank. They’ve run up form in the nostalgia-film stakes: at the close of 2007, they released their sequel to Ironiya Sudby (Irony of Fate), the beloved 1976 TV film with the same Yule cool as It’s a Wonderful Life holds for western audiences. The remake did what Terminator 2 did to Terminator: retraced over the original plot – in which a Moscow doctor gets blind-drunk on New Year’s Eve and accidentally ends up at an identical address in St Petersburg – with some contemporary embellishments. But the memento factor worked wonders for Bazelevs: Ironiya Sudby 2, with a $50m domestic take, became by far the most successful Russian film ever.

Bazelevs are hoping for a repeat with Dzhentlmeny, Udachi! (the new one seems to have acquired some excitable punctuation); the original, with 65m admissions first time round, has similar affection-reserves as Ironiya Sudby. Bekmambetov is only producing, but his team have a harder renovation job on their hands: the film, about a kindergarten teacher asked to infiltrate a gang of thieves who’ve stolen a helmet once belonging to Alexander the Great, is much more dated. Ironiya Sudby builds into a winningly wry take on relationships and ageing influenced by screwball comedy as well as older Russian literary traditions, but starts out foremost as a sly satire on identikit Soviet architecture and lifestyles; Dzhentlmeny Udachi, with its schooly finger-wagging about the criminal lifestyle, feels much more like something scripted by the Politburo (though both were produced by Mosfilm, the former national film studio).

The new Dzhentlmeny, Udachi! trailer suggests it’s added a global dimension: the prison where the teacher meets his associates seems to have been switched to the Middle East, and the glimpse of the burqa-clad gang in the Russian snow could mean an edgy Baron Cohen-style piece of culture-hacking. But the real trick to pull off would be an update that meaningfully reflects on the nostalgia factor in play here for Russian audiences, and the gulf between Soviet and capitalist generations. Despite the mountainous box office, Ironiya Sudby 2 didn’t make that breakthrough. It lacked most of the philosophical charm of the first film, and Bekmambetov’s typical nitro-charged style did a bit of a hit-and-run on any poignant statement it could have made on relationship pressures in Putin’s accelerating, on-the-make new Russia.

Given how faded the original seems, perhaps there’s more room to stamp a mark on Dzhentlmeny Udachi. And Bazelevs needs to: its level of success could have implications for the commercial Russian industry. It’s an increasingly Hollywood-dominated market, with the share for domestic films due to drop from 15.9% in 2011 to 13.8% in 2012. My hope that the 2012 New Year’s/early January rally for local films would be sustained throughout the year didn’t come to pass – there seems to be a bit of an imagination vacuum outside of the winter release slot. Whether polishing up another hallowed chunk of classic culture qualifies as the remedy is debatable, but Dzhentlmeny, Udachi! should at least indicate how high the high-water mark currently is for local films. Nostalgia is one half of the Janus equation, but it’s customary to see in the New Year with a dose of apprehension, too.

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