Deborah Young

Ma Barker meets the cruel injustices of Soviet life in Mama, a wild and unbelievable epic about the fatality of family ties that proves a much bigger mouthful than director Denis Yevstigneyev is able to chew, or audiences will be able to digest. An excellent cast and technical work add a painful sense of waste to a story that just won't take off in any direction. Its good looks may turn some heads, but without an involving storyline or star names, pic has dim export possibilities.

Pic opens deceptively enough in a nostalgic vein, as a girl with an accordion waits at a country station for soldiers returning from the front. It will take a long time for viewers to identify her as the careworn old woman (the great Nonna Mordukova, of Commissar fame) trying to get officials at a psychiatric institution to release her son, Lyonchik (the introverted Oleg Menshikov, lead in The Barber of Siberia). In short order, four young men living all over Russia receive phone calls to come home to Moscow. One is a Ukrainian coal miner, one a hustler in Vladivostock, one an army sniper in Tajikistan and the fourth, Nikolai (dashing Vladimir Mashkov from The Thief), a gay blade whose occupation seems to be fathering Eskimo children in the tundra.

Flashback to two tragic tales: The boys' father is shot to death before their eyes as they attempt to bribe his way out of a prison camp, and Lyonchik is wounded and paralyzed from the waist down, for life. Other family memories show the sons as kids in Moscow, where Mama has whipped them into a renowned music band called the Happy Family. One remarkable scene shows them dressed up in pseudo Wild West outfits, singing onstage for the Kremlin brass. But when their fortunes flag, Mama tries to hijack a plane to America. After a bloody shootout, they all end up in prison.

With all these premises out of the way, pic, which is said to be based on a true story, finds itself weirdly dressed up with no place to go. Scripter Arif Aliev, who wrote Prisoner of the Mountains, gets the quarrelsome family organized Mission: Impossible-style to spring brother Lyonchik from the mental hospital he has been living in for the past 16 years. But once they are reunited at last, the problem of what to do next recurs.

Though all perfs are interesting to watch, Mordukova takes the whole story much more seriously than her rambunctious brood, uncertain whether to play for laughs (Mashkov) or take a stab at tragedy (Menshikov). The director's origins as a cinematographer are evident in his attention to camerawork, entrusted to d.p. Pavel Lebeshev‘s refined images. Tech work is professional and contemporary, notably the music score by Eduard Artemyev and decor by Vladimir Aronin.