The St. Petersburg Times
Yuriy Humber

The business of winning film-festival prizes often falls to the more palatable avant-garde works that provoke shock as much as thought and recast what is known as virginal.

Aleksei Uchitel's tame Kosmos kak predchustviye (which translates as "space as anticipation", although the film is known as Dreaming of Space in English), lauded with the top prize at the 27th Moscow International Film Festival last week, does not fit into that category.

The director behind the popular low-budget comic meander through St. Petersburg, Progulka (The Stroll), has this time made a film about the lives of ordinary people in Murmansk at the start of the Space Race, the late 1950s, starring the ever-present Yevgeny Mironov and the lead actress from Progulka, Irina Pegova.

The brutal fact is, Kosmos, which premiered in St. Petersburg last Thursday, will need the stardust of the Moscow prize. It has no car chases and little sex; guffaw moments are sparse, as is any sense of suspense. While it is superbly acted and well shot, Kosmos will not change anyone's world, not even a little.

Movie-industry politics clearly had a hand in awarding the prize, as they always do. The country's self-proclaimed movie tsar Nikita Mikhalkov had backed Uchitel's previous film, Progulka, which opened the Moscow festival two years ago, although it was not included in the competition. This year, after again hearing positive comments on his latest work from Mikhalkov, Uchitel decided to pull out of Sochi's Kinotaur film festival to enter the one in Moscow.

With Uchitel's version of the life of émigré writer Ivan Bunin, His Wife's Diary, selected by Russia as its nominee for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar in 2000 (it didn't, in fact, make the shortlist), movie-world mathematics predicted that prizeworthy recognition for Uchitel was in the offing.

Mikhalkov's admiration of Uchitel's works blossomed as far back as the turn of the century, about the time that one of the actors from Diary, Andrei Smirnov, wrote a very favorable review of Mikhalkov's then much-slated The Barber of Siberia (1999). That Smirnov's sister, Dunya Smirnova, has been a regular scriptwriter for Uchitel (Progulka being one of her pieces) neatly completes the circle.

In Kosmos, playing safe with the movie community and toeing a useful political line, Uchitel presents a film that chimes with an in-vogue, sardonic retrospection on Soviet reality. If it worked for Pavel Chukhrai, for example, whose Voditel dlya Veri (A Driver for Vera) got reasonable box-office returns in 2004 and is now a popular rerun on TV, why not give it a go?

The implicit claim that such films make – even just by being made – is that Russia today has become much freer, more transparent. If Kosmos is to be believed, the Soviet era was a time for naifs. Only characters such as the simpleton Konyok, played by Mironov, could fit in, because they accepted the political and social situation without questioning. "How can you work so near to food and not pinch a bite for yourself?", asks Pegova's character Lara, a waitress at the same small-town restaurant where her boyfriend, Konyok, works as a cook. "It's near. That's why I can't," quips Konyok.

In the Soviet ear of Uchitel's film, scripted by Aleksandr Mindadze, people take part in sports competitions, drink tea, and dance to the smooth voices of crooners. The period is spartan. Those that know of "The Outside World" of the West, and of Soviet repression, are no longer naifs and cannot tolerate life in the country anymore.

Gherman, an ex-boxer with a shady (read: political) background, is one who dreams of escape. He purchases a radio from Norwegian sailors, keeps an Anglo-Russian phrasebook hidden, and, while shaving, tries time and again to remember how to say in English: "I seek political asylum."

The film's storyline seems to revel in placing parallel the bright ideals of Soviet daily life with their chiaroscuro, menacing outlines.

Konyok befriends Gherman at the sports club, through sparring, being sporty and "keeping in shape, just in case the country calls." Later we learn that Konyok was "told to keep an eye on the new guy" by a local apparatchik, though it's clear that Konyok is far too simple to comprehend the weight of the task and for him German becomes a friend and an idol.

What the film excels in is recreating details of the period. Posters, clothes, especially during crowd scenes, are collected with meticulous attention. In places, even the film quality reduces to the grainy resolution of the late '50s.

All such details make the film seem like a professionally visualized postcard from an earlier time. Many might say it even evokes nostalgia. But what the film's luscious shots, scenery, costumes, and expected jabs at Soviet naivety mainly do is recreate a Soviet Union for those not old enough to have known the era, as well as for those outside Russia – audiences that believe they are familiar with Soviet reality, if only because they have read George Orwell's 1984.

Subtly and vividly, Kosmos does nothing less than reawaken Soviet stereotypes. The "truth" is never so appealing as when you think you know it already.