The Moscow Times
Julia Solovyova

Mama, Denis Yevstigneyev's new thriller about a mother driven by excessive ambition for her talented children, combines three essential ingredients for success: superb performances by some of the nation's brightest film and theater stars, outwardly "Russian" themes (if hung on a Hollywood -style plot) and effective, Western-style promotion. Mama has several features in common with Nikita Mikhalkov's controversial blockbuster The Barber of Siberia, although it was made with a budget ($3 million) 15 times smaller. Two major television channels, ORT and NTV, setting aside their competition to produce the film, hired many of the same people who worked with Mikhalkov, such as Oleg Menshikov, one of Russia's most gifted actors, cameraman Pavel Lebeshev and composer Eduard Artemyev.

Like The Barber, this drama, filmed all over the former Soviet Union over a period of 40 years, has epic elements. But there is little nostalgia for the past here – a failing that has prevented many recent Russian movies from dealing with difficult, unarticulated modern-day issues. Mama's seemingly paradoxical combination of the qualities of realism and fairy-tale provide an original, if far from representative, comment on contemporary Russia. The constant flicking in time and space, from the deepest provinces to modern-day Pushkin Square, is one of the film's most effective devices. The screenplay, made into a novel to be released this month, was written by Arif Aliyev, the Nika-winning screenwriter of the 1996 Prisoner of the Caucasus. The character of the mother was created especially for the prima donna of Soviet cinema Nonna Mordiukova, now in her 70s, who accepted her first movie role in 18 years.

An American-style screenwriter, Aliyev believes in strong, destiny-defining plots. Mama, based loosely on a true story, tells the tale of a once-famous family of jazz musicians who attempt the hijacking of an airplane. The teenage terrorists are led and inspired by the mother they adore and by a shared desire to find the treatment needed for their elder brother, Lyonchik, who was confined to a wheelchair after a failed attempt as a child to spring his father from prison (the father died).

The hijacking fails, representing yet another of Mama's ultimately catastrophic schemes. One of the boys is killed, the mother goes to jail and the brothers find themselves in different orphanages and prisons for underage criminals. When the mother is released 15 years later, she goes to find Lyonchik in the mental hospital where he is faking schizophrenia in a vain attempt to escape a devastating sense of disappointment and betrayal.

In The Barber of Siberia, Menshikov played an immature 18-year-old cadet. Here, as a disabled, traumatized adult, he astounds by the depth of suppressed emotion he communicates. The initial scenes at the mental hospital are the most memorable in the film, with the mother's impotent rage and self-hatred set against Lyonchik's stubborn silence and refusal to recognize her. Inevitably, according to the rules of Hollywood that this film sadly abides by, Lyonchik will have to break down at some point for a heart-warming reconciliation. But while the conflict is sustained, Yevstigneyev succeeds in generating immense power from a tense, morally ambiguous situation.

The fate of the four other brothers smacks of the absurd: There is an unpaid, hungry miner feasting on a circus zebra (Mikhail Krylov), a sniper in Tajikistan fighting with female Latvian mercenaries (Aleksei Kravchenko), an edgy, cocaine-snorting criminal (Yevgeny Mironov) and an officer (Vladimir Mashkov, star of Vor) enjoying the solicitous services of native women in the Far North.

Once an ensemble, the brothers, left to their own devices, have become hardened and cynical, while still managing to evoke sympathy and compassion. Making a huge effort to overcome their own agendas, they eventually forgive their mother and return to try to unite the family, getting drunk on the way. Despite her age, it is still Mama who calls the shots, hatching yet another hare-brained scheme to free Lyonchik from the hospital. The film's creators have tried to defend Mama from being interpreted as a metaphor for what has been seen as a sadomasochistic relationship between Russians and their motherland. The comparison, however, is hard to avoid. Mordiukova's tragic character compels her to assume an unbearable burden of responsibility for her children. She ruins their lives by the intensity of a love that can be seen with equal justification as selfish or selfless. The pain it brings, coupled with a merciless portrayal of Russian social institutions, makes for compelling viewing.