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Film Review: “Leto” Is a Gorgeous, But Overly Sleepy, Soviet Rock Drama

Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | June 6th, 2019

Film poster: “Leto”

Leto (Kirill Serebrennikov, 2018) out of 4 stars.

A somewhat film, albeit a strange one to be given an American release, Kirill Serebrennikov’s Leto(the title means “summer” in Russian) tells the highly specific story (in terms of time and place) of the nascent rock ‘n’ roll scene in early 1980s Leningrad (now back to its original name of St. Petersburg). The Cold War between the US and USSR is still going strong and the Communist Party rules all Soviet lands, but young (male) rebels insist on breaking rules by singing from their heart and in a style associated with the decadent West. They will not be silenced, and despite the threat of prison, or worse, perform their radical pieces in front of large, screaming audiences.

Or not. What is, in fact, especially remarkable about this dramatization of real-life events is how calm everyone seems (and no, no one is thrown in jail). True, it’s the period of stagnation under the ostensible leadership of an increasingly senile Leonid Brezhnev, but the worst that seems to happen to the protagonists are love affairs, fantasy sequences of violence (the liveliest aspects of the movie), and indifference of the public. In order to get to that public, our budding stars must first pass muster with the censors who guard access to the city’s “Rock Club.” Once they do, they are treated to a crowd that is heavily patrolled by ushers to keep the enthusiasm to a minimum. No use letting kids go too wild.

Roman Bilyk as Mike Naumenko and Teo Yoo as Viktor Tsoi in LETO ©Gunpowder & Sky

There are two bands (with a third in the background) at the center of the narrative, and three central characters. First, we meet Mike Naumenko (who sings the title song), leader and frontman of Zoopark (which emerged out of the group Aquarium). He’s at the top of his game, established as much as he can be under the ossified system, and in love with wife Natasha. On a lovely summer day on the Baltic coast, they meet Viktor Tsoi (soon to become the founder of another band, Kino), and before long both Mike and Natasha are taken with him, the former musically, the latter romantically. As the two men bond over the state of the art, Natasha and Viktor flirt with sex on the side. Meanwhile, there are ballads to be written.

The title is more than appropriate, given the gentle sleepiness of the mise-en-scène, like a pleasant, if listless summer breeze washing over you. Gorgeously photographed in rich black-and-white tones and beautifully performed by leads Roman Bilyk (Naumenko), Irina Starshenbaum (Natasha) and Teo Yoo (Viktor), the story lacks drive, though fans of either Zoopark or Kino might disagree. As a former student and teacher of Russian language, history and culture, who first traveled to Leningrad in 1988 and attended an Aquarium concert on that trip, I can vouch for the cinematic veracity of the then-common rock experience: I remember how amused I was at the sight of young people sitting stiffly in seats as the drums beat an infectious beat in relentless opposition to the enforced calm. Lovely artifact though this may be, however, its appeal is narrow (to American audiences) and its drama too much like the atmosphere of the shows it replicates. We want to dance, and instead can only sway.

Irina Starshenbaum as Natasha in LETO ©Gunpowder & Sky
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Christopher Llewellyn Reed is a film critic, filmmaker, and educator. A member of the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA) and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, he is Managing Editor at Film Festival Today; lead film critic at Hammer to Nail; 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 one of the cohosts of The Fog of Truth, a podcast devoted to documentary cinema.

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