The winter holidays are known to be difficult in Russia. Ever since the decision to make the first five days of the year, as well as Orthodox Christmas, public holidays, the resulting break often stretched to 10 days or more (by law, if the holiday falls on a weekend, it is then shifted to the next weekday.
Traveling during this time of the year is notoriously nightmarish, since prices skyrocket and hotel rooms are difficult to book. According to economists at the Plekhanov Institute who made the calculation last week, the holiday economic shutdown costs over 1 percent of GDP.
Those who are stuck at home face the question: once the New Year’s holiday spread is digested and the alcohol fumes fade, what does one do with all the time that remains? The answer is often to hit the cinema, and in recent years studios have battled to get their films released in theaters during this hiatus as way to get the most bang for their invested buck.
This year, the obvious “plat de resistance” in the holiday film fare on offer is T-34, an action flick set during World War II that many critics said looks more like an episode of the popular video game World of Tanks than a drama about the tragedy of war.
Hardly a descendant of the great tradition of touching Soviet-era war films, like The Cranes are Flying or Ballad of a Soldier, T-34 (named after the WWII Soviet tank) is more like an estranged cousin of a one-dimensional Hollywood comic book adaptation . The plot sends protagonist Ivushkin first into a head-spinning tank battle, then into a seemingly horror-free Nazi concentration camp, from which he daringly escapes (on a tank, of course). “What turns out is not a drama, but fun clips of tanks from the popular online game,” said a searing review by Vechernyaya Moskva newspaper.
As if to prove the criticism, Culture Minister Vladimir Medinsky on Tuesday said his son endorsed the film by sending him a meme: an image of American superheroes with the caption “We argued when we were kids who is cooler, Batman or Superman?” The second image has a Soviet soldier, and is captioned, “Now I know.”
Medinsky endorses films that glorify the Soviet Union and skip over less unambiguous pages in the country’s history, whether that be in war or peace. The Russian government is also generally impatient with films with a different angle or narrative. Last year Moscow pulled the license for theatrical release of the British farce The Death of Stalin, about unsavory squabbles among the Soviet elites following Stalin’s unexpected death, for example.
So it was expected that Alexei Krasovsky'с black comedy The Feast (Праздник), about a privileged Soviet family preparing for а New Year’s party in besieged Leningrad, would not go down well. The film, which was made on a small, crowdfunded budget, starts when the matriarch of the household dangles a chicken by its legs and cringes: Why didn’t they send us something more fancy? she asks, while the rest of the city is dying of starvation. Her universe is rattled later in the evening when her son brings home a “common” girl, who confesses, in the midst of devouring the food in front of her, that her family kept the father’s corpse on the balcony in order to continue getting his rations.
The lavish lifestyle of some members of the nomenklatura during the war has been well documented, but Krasovsky began facing official indignation and received phone threats even before the film was released on YouTube in January. Lawmakers accused him of sacrilege and “laughing at the memory of Leningrad’s heroic history.” But comments under his YouTube release, where he also asks for donations, indicate that people also see parallels between the film and the rampant inequality in modern Russian society. Though clearly a low-budget production without the cinematic feel of a state-backed multi-million budget, Prazdnik has nonetheless received a fair amount of praise.
The tale of two movies is a little like a tale of two Russias. One seeks a popcorn version of its own history, while the other prefers a stigmatised version with not a single likeable character, and is exiled to the internet.
In the first weekend of their respective releases, T-34 made over $10 million in the box office. Prazdnik collected R2.65 million (about $40,000)in donations in the first week of January, almost half of which was on the day of its release (January 2).
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