The Moscow Times
Tom Birchenough

After the launch of Sputnik in 1957, the lives of four young people change irreversibly in Aleksei Uchitel's award-winning drama Dreaming of Space

After his absolutely contemporary The Stroll ("Progulka") from 2003, director Aleksei Uchitel has moved back nearly four decades to a different, Soviet-era reality in Dreaming of Space ("Kosmos kak predchuvstviye"). Hurried into local release after winning the top prize at the Moscow International Film Festival, Dreaming looks likely to prove popular with viewers.

So far, however, critical reaction to the film has been muted, amid suggestions that its festival victory was preordained. But such criticism is less than deserved, given that Uchitel has made a decent film with a much more mainstream character than his previous three features to date.

Significantly, the director teamed up this time with screenwriter Aleksandr Mindadze, a collaborator for almost 30 years with renowned filmmaker Vadim Abdrashitov. This meant that Uchitel parted company with Dunya Smirnova, who wrote the scripts for his three previous features – although that separation appears to be a friendly one, given that Uchitel is currently producing Smirnova's directing debut.

Mindadze's script is arguably tighter than Uchitel's realization. Most of it takes place in 1957, the year when the Soviet Union launched its first satellite into space. This event is witnessed by the film's hero, Konyok (Yevgeny Mironov of His Wife's Diary, Uchitel's film from 2000) and his girlfriend Lara (Irina Pegova of The Stroll). Set in the northern city of Murmansk, the film focuses on ordinary characters: Konyok is a cook in a local restaurant, while Lara waits tables there. This might sound like a recipe for Soviet-style fare, and, in fact, Dreaming captures this nostalgic visual style convincingly.

Despite the general optimism inspired by Sputnik, forces disrupt the apparent order of Konyok's life. The arrival of an outsider, Gherman (Yevgeny Tzyganov, also of The Stroll), sets in motion the film's development. The encounter between the two men begins in a local boxing ring with a convincing male-bonding scenario; the boxing scenes look believable too.

The changes to Konyok's world take place on two fronts. On the emotional one, Gherman disrupts Konyok's relationship with Lara, ultimately sending him into the arms of her sister Rimma (Yelena Lyadova, making her screen debut after stage work at Theater Yunogo Zritelya). Meanwhile, on a wider scale, Gherman proves that there's more to the apparently secure provincial world than the rest of the characters have been accustomed to.

Obviously aware of wider horizons beyond their remote port city, Gherman doesn't hesitate to take action. Voices from foreign radio transmissions fuel his attraction, while the presence of visiting ships in the harbor or just offshore pushes him to train in the freezing sea, as he prepares for a final, unsuccessful attempt to reach a departing vessel.

Konyok gets caught up in Gherman's aura, with Mironov playing a kind of captivated character similar to the one he played in His Wife's Diary – and plausibly so, for Tzyganov is intriguing indeed. The denouement has Konyok and Rimma departing on a Moscow-bound train with hopes of advancing his career in new directions – a somewhat unlikely prospect, given the realities of the time. But it's his encounter on that journey with cosmonaut-to-be Yuri Gagarin that provides the emotional tone for the film's closing scene, set in the aftermath of Gagarin's space-flight four years later, as Konyok salutes the achievements of his new hero.

Though its plot has arguable shortcomings, Dreaming looks impeccable visually. Like his cast, Uchitel's crew features a number of past collaborators, such as production designer Vera Zelinskaya – a Lenfilm veteran who has worked with Aleksandr Sokurov, as well as on His Wife's Diary – and Kirill Vasilenko, the sound director from Uchitel's last two films. Zelinskaya's recreation of period detail is impressive: There are precious few elements of glamour, although some interiors may look a bit too attractive from a strict historical perspective. The energetic port scenes, as well as the reduction of color in many exterior shots, are striking.

But top honors, with some qualifications, go to cinematographer Yuri Klimenko, who has worked with classic directors such as Sergei Paradzhanov. Mixing rapidly cut scenes with wide, evocative longer takes, Klimenko creates a visual richness that sometimes overshadows what's actually happening on-screen.

The main qualification comes from moments of extreme graininess that can become distracting and were likely caused by Uchitel's decision to shoot Dreaming on 16-millimeter film stock. This certainly avoids hints of a sepia-indulgent historical atmosphere. But whether the result, though it may dream of space, is stellar is another matter.