I mean to check out this festival every year and usually end up missing it for whatever reasons, mostly procrastination. This year, I finally made it, catching two films over two weekends, something old and something new.
An odd film by Andrey Zvyagintsev aside, I haven’t exactly kept up with the contemporary Russian cinema for the last twenty years, so I was curious to watch something fresh out of the oven, such as Tutor, a 2018 release. It tells the story of Savva, a 17-year-old youth who, in order to prepare for his university course, is looking for a French literature tutor. Eventually he finds Anna, an attractive but rather severe woman in her mid-forties, who gives lessons from home. Their relationship gets complicated when mutual attraction leads to a secret romance.
The film makes several references to Madame Bovary, which Anna and Savva discuss at length during their lessons, drawing clear parallels with Flaubert’s heroine’s doomed love affairs; the happy bubble the two lovers inhabit for a while cannot survive the pressures of the real world and the age disparity. Anna, perhaps inevitably, is the more interesting character, self-possessed, inscrutable and with a streak of brutal honesty that she won’t hide even from her own family, yet vulnerable and yearning for love. Savva is a typical fresh-faced teenager, puppyish and at times childish, but with a surprising sensual side that belies his age. Though the film slightly overuses the slow motion, it does an admirable job maintaining the lyrical tone, and has an appealing, elegant and airy look. Even the dilapidated buildings and lifts of its anonymous Russian city look quaint rather than depressing.
Previously to watching the 1964 Soviet adaptation of Shakespeare’s famous tragedy, the 1990 film with Mel Gibson was the only other cinematic version of Hamlet I was familiar with, and I mostly remember it for Cher’s priceless put-down in Clueless (“Well, I remember Mel Gibson accurately, and he didn’t say that. That Polonius guy did”). I don’t mean it as a slight against Mel Gibson or director Franco Zeffirelli, I just find the Shakespearean language incredibly tough to tune into. I remember watching Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet at home with subtitles and going, ummm I think I can figure out what you’ve just said, but I’m still not 100% sure I got the meaning right. The Russian translation of Hamlet by Boris Pasternak was easier on the ear for this native Russian speaker, but I still felt like I had to concentrate to follow the story.
Because of its age and stage play origins, I expected the film to be very dated and stagey, but to my surprise it felt cinematic and dynamic, with striking black-and-white photography, exquisite costumes and sets, and wide sweeping shots of sea and cliffs contrasting with the interiors of the castle, the “stone prison” for the film’s melancholy hero. Other than the visuals, the film is memorable for the magnetic lead performance by Innokenty Smoktunovsky, who I’ve never seen onscreen as a younger man before. I’ve always been a sucker for a great speaking voice, and his rich velvety delivery is just captivating to listen to. I can’t compare him to other cinematic Hamlets, but he’d have to be up there with the best.
As a side note, I’ve never been to the ACMI cinema theatre before, and along with my Mum and sister I found it pretty impressive. Clean, comfortable, spacious, without that grotty feeling some theatres have. I’d definitely come back.