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More Than a Game

In his highly anticipated second film, director Alexei German Jr. tells a story of soccer and brotherhood on the eve of the Russian Revolution.

As with many directors` second features, Alexei German Jr.`s "Garpastum" has been eagerly awaited, not least given its inclusion in last month`s Venice Film Festival. Much of the interest lay in whether -- and how -- the 29-year-old director, the son of another legendary art-house filmmaker, would move on from his debut feature "The Last Train," finished almost two years ago.

He has -- and he hasn`t. Fans of "The Last Train," of whom there were many on the international festival circuit, will recognize a continuation of the style that German Jr. forged in that work, especially in the visual sense. Telling the story of a German doctor caught up on the Eastern front in the last days of World War II, "The Last Train" owed much to its cinematography, and in particular to misty landscapes that gave a broad, even philosophical tone to the events on screen.

There`s every bit as much mist in "Garpastum," and a similar visual attention that makes almost every shot -- especially the wider ones -- memorable. Both films were made in wide-screen format, which is relatively rare in Russian cinema, and though "Garpastum" is nominally a color film, its tone contrasts have been treated to create such a bleached effect that it often resembles the black-and-white of "The Last Train."

A key difference, however, is that in "Garpastum" the director has taken on a wider story, one richer in characters than his first feature, which was dominated by its lone hero. That expansion comes across quite convincingly, although it is debatable whether the accompanying increase in length -- "Last Train" was just over 80 minutes, while "Garpastum" runs to almost two hours -- is equally successful.

The film`s title alludes to an ancient Greek ball game that was a forerunner of soccer. With "Garpastum" starting out in St. Petersburg in 1914, however, it is the game`s modern version that obsesses the two main heroes, the brothers Andrei (Yevgeny Pronin) and Nikolai (Danila Kozlovsky), who play amateur matches around the city, mainly as a four-a-side team with the younger Shust (Dmitry Vladimirov) and the corpulent Tolsty (Alexander Bykovsky). When their attempts to join an adult team formed by English players attached to a city factory fail, they set out to win money to buy a plot of land and set up their own field, an effort that propels the film`s central narrative.

But there`s much more happening in the film`s surrounding stories. On the domestic front there`s the brothers` home life: Their father has lost his wits after losing a bet on a match involving the Russian national team, their mother is dead and the two live in relative, though not extreme, poverty with their aunt and uncle (the latter impressively played by the late Pavel Romanov, the hero of "The Last Train," who died before "Garpastum" reached its final edit).

Then there`s the wider milieu of St. Petersburg life. Andrei gets caught up in the world of Silver Age culture through a sexual relationship with the older Anitsa (Chulpan Khamatova), a Serbian salon hostess with an unpredictable character. It`s a strange overlap as the simplicity of the brothers` lives and dreams meshes with a bohemian world whose passing players include poets Alexander Blok (an out-of-character Gosha Kutsenko), Anna Akhmatova and Osip Mandelstam (Sergei Bugayev, better known as the artist Afrika).

The Serbian theme also provides a symbolic connection to the film`s opening scene, as we see the killer of Archduke Franz Ferdinand setting out for the assassination that would change the course of the century -- and indirectly precipitate the events that would alter St. Petersburg itself beyond recognition. The final scenes, set in 1918 after Nikolai has returned from the army, see the brothers playing soccer once again in their old haunts -- but in every other way, an epoch has passed.

Though there`s something of an elegiac tone to his story of the passing of youth (brought home in a sparse score from Igor Vdovin), German Jr. doesn`t celebrate pre-revolutionary St. Petersburg. Quite the opposite: There`s hardly a grand imperial building in sight, with cinematographer Oleg Lukichev (also from "The Last Train") and the film`s designers creating a grimy, muddy, industrial cityscape in which work is hard and life is cheap, as proved by some cruel plot developments toward the end.

Whether "Garpastum" finally comes together remains an open question, perhaps due to the origin of German Jr.`s script: Co-written with producer Alexander Vainshtein, it was initially loosely based on the lives of the Starostin brothers, the Soviet-era soccer legends who helped found Spartak Moscow, before veering off in a more fictional direction. Various repeated, protracted soccer scenes break up the development of the story, though they might be seen as mirroring the protracted, muddy conflicts of a wider war being played out in Europe. Sometimes the film is emotionally resounding, and there is even some comedy, but the final effect remains somewhat objective and cold -- lives played out in a heavy mist that is as much emotional as visual.

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