Welcome to the Larry411.com Guest Columnists! April 27, 2013
In my travels to the best film festivals in…
On Wednesday, October 30, 2013 I attended the US Premiere of The Geographer Drank His Globe Away at the 2013 Fort Lauderdale International Film Festival. The screening took place at the historic Cinema Paradiso in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. It was a selection in the World Cinema Features section.
“Epic” is almost synonymous with early Russian cinema. The tradition lives on with Alexandr Veledinsky’s The Geographer Drank His Globe Away (Russian title Geograf globus propil), a sweeping, magnificent tragicomedy and colorful depiction of life in an industrial city on the banks of the Kama River, in the shadow of the majestic Ural Mountains. Based on the best selling novel of the same name by Aleksei Ivanov, the story centers around Victor Sergeyevich Sluzhkin (Konstantin Khabenskiy), a biologist who travels to the city of Perm in the European part of Russia. He lives with his wife and daughter in a tiny, lower middle class apartment in an aging tower block, so typical of old Russia with its peeling paint and laundry hanging from lines on the terrace. Down on his luck, Sluzhkin gets a job as a geography teacher in the local high school. His 15-year-old students are merciless in their lack of respect for him. Meanwhile, his lonely wife Nadya is being courted by his neighbor and best friend, he has eyes for a fellow teacher, and a student, the nubile Masha, has designs on him. He copes with all of it by keeping a bottle of vodka close by his side. “Geographer,” as his students call him, attempts to bond with them through occasionally unauthorized field trips, and a dramatic white water rafting excursion will test the teacher and teens in ways none could imagine.
This is the fourth feature for director/co-writer/editor Alexandr Veledinsky, and his first in seven years. His previous movie, Alive (Zhivoy), was nominated for the Grand Prize at the 2006 Sochi Open Film Festival and won Best Screenplay at the 2007 Nika Awards. The Geographer Drank His Globe Away debuted at Russia’s Kinotavr Film Festival in June, where it won four awards, including Best Film, Best Actor, Best Music, and the Award of the Film Distributors Jury. This was followed by screenings at Israel's Haifa Film Festival, the Reykjavik International Film Festival in Iceland, and Poland's Warsaw Film Festival before arriving in Fort Lauderdale for the US Premiere.
The movie rests on the able shoulders of award-winning star Konstantin Khabenskiy, whose extensive filmography consists of more than 40 motion picture and TV titles. His nine nominations and awards include Best Comedic Performance at the 2008 Russian MTV Movie Awards for Ironiya sudby. Prodolzhenie and Best Actor for Admiral at the MTV Movie Awards in 2009. He’s perhaps best known in the West for his portrayal of The Exterminator in 2008’s Wanted and as Polyakov in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011). He’s onscreen in virtually every scene from opening to closing credits and turns in a breathtaking performance that spans every possible human emotion. Elena Lyadova plays his pained wife Nadya. Standouts among the students include Anfisa Chernykh as Masha and Ilya Ilinyh as Ovechkin.
Production values are stellar, belying a modest budget ($2.4 to $4 million depending on the source). The Geographer Drank His Globe Away is filled with, “How did they do that?” moments, particularly when the cast goes rafting in the very real, non-CGI white water rapids sequences. Filming this motion picture was a Herculean task for cinematographer Vladimir Bashta. He has just over a dozen big and small screen projects to his credit – this is his seventh feature. His previous work, Brestskaya krepost, received a nomination for Best Cinematography at the 2011 Asia Pacific Screen Awards.
Although the action takes place over the course of a few months from winter into spring, utilizing 34 shooting days, it took two years to film this picture since conditions had to be just right. Exterior shots with an icy frozen Kama River and snow on the ground needed to be completed in winter. For school interiors, they needed bright light shining through the classroom windows, which only occurs in spring. But the river rapids which are at the heart of the rafting sequences only occur during two weeks of high water in May due to Russia’s climate and geology. As complex as the story is, its linear narrative keeps the viewer glued to the screen, its numerous character arcs juggled like so many simultaneous chess games.
Relying on available light, for the most part, the winter scenes feel as cold as they look, with a color palette into the blue and gray. The spring sunshine allowed practical lighting to be used in the school sequences, as well. Director/co-writer Veledinsky edited the film with Tatyana Prilenskaya, a monumental accomplishment given the demands of such a multi-layered narrative.
The cinematography is truly spectacular at times, especially in the Ural Mountains where the 2.39:1 widescreen format and high peak vantage points, looking down on the churning rapids, surround the viewer with the sights and sounds of nature at its wildest. These rafting scenes are in stark contrast to the claustrophobic school setting and even more to the cramped quarters in which the professor and his family live. Reflecting the change in settings, light and color move from dark and shadowy in the apartment, to bright and warm primary colors in the classroom, to the overwhelming beauty of sky, mountains, and water on the rafting trip.
Film adaptations of novels generally take one of two courses. In the first, multiple layers of narrative and a massive number of characters are whittled down to a short, coherent three-act character study focusing on a half dozen individuals with well-defined arcs. In the second, the filmmakers make a bold attempt to bring the entire book to the screen, with its many locations, characters, and subplots. The latter is the case with The Geographer Drank His Globe Away. Essentially three movies in one, the challenge of moving from page to cinema was met by the talented writing team of Rauf Kubayev and Aleksandr Veledinskiy, with the participation of the legendary Valeriy Todorovskiy. One of the most celebrated writers and producers in the nation, Todorovskiy has over 115 big and small screen projects to his credit along with two dozen awards and nominations, including a Nika Award for Best Film (Russia’s Oscar-equivalent) and Golden Eagle Award for Best Film (Russia’s Golden Globe-equivalent) for 2008’s Hipsters.
The picture’s barebones soundtrack consists primarily of practical music, a tradition in foreign films (only using what might be heard in reality -- car radio, headphones, etc.). In a clever bow to the convention, even the opening theme is shown to be played by a train passenger who happens to be crooning a tune in the aisle while Victor is traveling to Perm. When used, the third-party songs and sparse original score by composer Aleksey Zubarev truly stand out.
The struggling couple and their tenuous relationship would make a fine movie in itself. Add friends and lovers for a poignant romantic comedy involving a professor, his wife and daughter, and their neighbor. But this is a powerful coming of age film, to boot, with adolescent antics, a death-defying field trip that will test the bonds among teacher and students, and the pangs of young love. There’s the girl whose would-be boyfriend may challenge the professor for her affections, the class clown who’d rather show up teacher in a card game than learn his geography, and the colleague with an upscale apartment and a keen eye for a man in crisis. Our poor geographer’s mental attitude simply matches that of his students -- he just doesn’t want to grow up. He drinks and smokes with them and, perhaps, desires even more. At times, the action deftly crosses moral boundaries that would never be depicted in a Hollywood movie. Victor doesn’t know what, or who, he wants even when it’s literally staring him in the face. Who has not been in this position at some time in his life?
The voyage, whether in the home, classroom, or a raft on a river, becomes a learning experience for all. The teacher’s lesson to his students is directed at himself, as well. The audience determines who benefits more. But the viewer isn’t hit over the head with platitudes. There’s just enough exposition in the script to remain engaged. But there’s still more, so much more. We are treated to the beauty of the landscape – the rivers and mountains and lush forests. The picture is a geography lesson unto itself. The movie’s themes are universal and certainly not unique to Russia. While there are some cultural references, they are easily understood.
To Sir, with Love meets Deliverance in this moral, spiritual, and physical journey of a geography teacher, his 10th grade students, his wife, daughter, best friend, and a succession of women who enter his life. The Geographer Drank His Globe Away is simply one of the best foreign films of the year.
NOTE: I selected The Geographer Drank His Globe Away as one of my Top 7 Foreign Language Narratives from the 2013 Fort Lauderdale International Film Festival. It was produced by Vadim Goryainov, Leonid Lebedev, and Valeriy Todorovskiy with Executive Producers Maksim Koroptsov and Elena Kozhanova. The picture was produced by Marmot-film and is represented by Antipode Sales and Distribution. Red Arrow Film Company (Krasnaya Strela) is the Russian distributor. A domestic distribution deal awaits.
The official trailer (with English subtitles) is below along with a set of stills and behind the scenes photos.
Official Facebook: facebook.com/GeografGlobusPropil
Official Sales Site: antipode-sales.biz
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In my travels to the best film festivals in…