STUDY, STUDY, STUDY: THE GRAND PRIZE OF THE 27TH MOSCOW INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL WENT TO ALEKSEI UCHITEL'S DREAMING OF SPACE*

Diliara Tasbulatova
translated by Vladimir Padunov
09.05.2005
kinokultura.com

*Translator's note: the root of Uchitel's name (uchit) forms an infinitive that means either "to study" or "to teach," depending on the context; the name itself means "teacher."

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In comparison with Mr. Uchitel's preceding films – His Wife's Diary (2000), about the last days of writer Ivan Bunin, or The Stroll (2003), an impressionistic sketch aimed at youth culture, Dreaming of Space can almost be considered a masterpiece. Perhaps this is because Uchitel finally based his film on a solid script, inviting not just anybody to work on the film with him, but Aleksandr Mindadze himself (with all my respect for the talented young lady Dunia Smirnova, who wrote the scripts for His Wife's Diary and The Stroll, she is no Mindadze). Or perhaps it is because Uchitel was able to learn his lesson from his earlier failures (The Stroll, on which he placed such high hopes, received nothing but devastating reviews). It is not clear. But one thing is: Mr. Uchitel tried as hard as he could to instill his retro-saga (set in the long-ago 1950s) with as much of his soul's passion as he was capable. It would be strange to object, for example, that there is just too much passion. As they say: be happy with what you've got. Especially since in addition to those who disparaged it, Dreaming of Space had some admirers as well among viewers, film critics, and even some writers, let alone among the stars of our own show business. At any rate, at the film's gala premiere in the Pushkin movie theater, the hall was swamped to overflowing with VIPs, who furiously applauded. And superstar Alla Pugachyova, who honored this pathos-ridden undertaking with her presence, presented a luxurious bouquet of roses to Yevgeny Mironov, the lead actor of the film. And yet, and yet, and yet... Despite all of the retro-charm of Dreaming of Space, parts of which I rather liked, something was missing. Most of all – narrative clarity. What is the film about? Who is the primary hero? Who the secondary? To what end and why are we being told this story? At times none of these is clear.

A guy with an operatic name – Gherman (played by Yevgeny Tzyganov) – arrives in an out-of-the-way northern city. He is a demonic type, as ambitious and secretive as Lawrence of Arabia, no less. He is a dangerous man, a boxer and a "hunk," whose past is as cloudy as his future. On his earthly path he encounters a sympathetic group of friends: a cook in the port's restaurant nicknamed Konyok (Mironov) and two chubby sister-waitresses. Gherman begins to deal the cards of fate, unceremoniously interfering in other people's lives. It is immediately clear that he will steal the better of the two chubby girls – Larka (Irina Pegova) – away from Konyok, while at the same time diverting the ordinary Konyok from his true path, whispering incredible things about space to him. Gherman claims to be one of the elite ten chosen to be a future astronaut, simply killing time in the small city while he waits for the signal from "the Center." In the end, Gherman swims off in an unknown direction – either in the wake of a Norwegian ship or out into the open sea to his inevitable death – while Konyok meets a white-toothed military trainee named Yuri on a train.

After the white-toothed trainee – vaguely resembling you-know-who – pronounces his name, Yuri (he conceals his surname, Gagarin), Mr. Uchitel interrupts the narrative by inserting into this significant scene documentary footage of the ceremonial procession honoring the first astronaut, accompanied by the exultant cries of the excited masses. Another editorial cut: and in the mob we see our old friend Konyok, whose insignificant destiny for a moment is colored by his proximity to eternal greatness. Recognizing his trainee, Konyok hurls himself at the car carrying Gagarin and throws him a bouquet of roses. Fade out. Credits.

It should be said that the scene with the military trainee brought the viewers in the auditorium to total euphoria, no less than the one that gripped the many millions of Soviet citizens when they first learnt of Gagarin's heroic feat. Back then we all still believed in the "peaceful" atom that would help us master space, still believed that millions would finally embrace each other ecstatically, and that the smiling ordinary guy named Yura would become the harbinger of a new era, of "the radiant future."

It would be interesting to know why today, in this flabby and cynical epoch, the audience started applauding so in unison (it even became rhythmic applause) and many started crying? As one clever critic wrote, Uchitel, together with Mindadze, chose a sniper's "sweet shot," reanimating the old Soviet brand known as "Russian space." That very same space that once allowed us to feel a part of an enormous world, when we still sat behind the Iron Curtain that we couldn't crawl over. Towards which, adds this same critic, we now so futilely try to break through. Isn't that the truth. ...