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Film Review: In “Zerograd,” a Nation Collapses, And What Fun It Is

Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | October 25th, 2022

Film poster: “Zerograd”

Zerograd (Karen Shakhnazarov, 1988) 3 out of 4 stars.

The end of the Soviet Union may have liberated many oppressed souls from the yoke of authoritarianism, but it was also deeply traumatic to many. We can directly trace the roots of today’s act of Russian aggression in Ukraine to the chaos that followed the empire’s 1991 collapse. 31 years have done little to slake the thirst for power’s return that a man like Vladimir Putin, steeped in the USSR’s mythology, has long desired. And even if some Russians are slowly coming to regret their faith in his leadership as the war goes badly for them, no small a number of them equally mourn the days when the U.S.S.R. was a major player in global affairs.

Perhaps it’s a good time, then, to revisit a film made in the waning days of that patchwork nation’s 70-year history. Director Karen Shakhnazarov’s 1988 Zerograd, out today in a new 2K transfer on Blu-ray, brings us back to a time when both decay and change were in the air. This was the era of the late Mikhail Gorbachev’s vaunted Glasnost and Perestroika reforms, designed to loosen up the state’s stranglehold on the economy and reenergize the population. It was a good plan, until it wasn’t.

Leonid Filatov in ZEROGRAD ©Deaf Crocodile/Vinegar Syndrome

Our hero, Aleksei Varakin (Leonid Filatov), travels on a mission from Moscow to a provincial town. He’s an engineer sent to fix the way a local factory makes air-conditioning units. Once there, he quickly finds himself derailed in what soon becomes a Kafkaesque nightmare of the absurd. The first clue that something is rotting in the state of Russia is when the factory director’s secretary is completely naked at work, with no one (except Varakin) batting an eye. From there, matters only grow stranger.

Getting nowhere with the air conditioners, Varakin stops for lunch on his way back to the station. Despite specifically saying no to dessert, he is brought one anyway, a cake made in his own likeness. “Eat it or the chef may kill himself,” says the waiter. Varakin refuses to eat. Guess what happens.

Lena Zhanik in ZEROGRAD ©Deaf Crocodile/Vinegar Syndrome

As the film progresses, the story becomes ever more a meditation on the already farcical nature of the totalitarian state, Shakhnazarov (Dreams) reveling in the distorted history lessons the towns residents tell themselves. The title in Russian, “Gorod Zero,” literally means “City Zero,” which could mean both a null and void or the source of all, in this case, corruption. For Varakin, events spiral quickly out of control, but does anything really change? For us, it’s all a lot of fun, even if some of the jokes become stale after a bit. Who knew the end of a world could be such a delight?

[Zerograd is now available on disc from Deaf Crocodile and Vinegar Syndrome.]

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Christopher Llewellyn Reed is a film critic, filmmaker, and educator. A member of both the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA), as well as a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, he is Managing Editor at Film Festival Today; lead film critic at Hammer to Nail; formerly the host of the award-winning Reel Talk with Christopher Llewellyn Reed, from Dragon Digital Media; and the author of Film Editing: Theory and Practice. In addition, he is a former cohost of The Fog of Truth, a podcast devoted to documentary cinema.

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