The Exile, Issue №07/62
Kevin McElwee

After the debacle of Barber of Siberia just a few short weeks ago, it was not without some trepidation that I took my seat to see another brand-spanking-new Russian film starring Oleg Menshikov whose release had been accompanied by a similarly heavy advertising blitz. But at half the length and with just 1/15th of the budget (although still huge by Russian standards at $3 million), Denis Yevstigneyev's Mama is at least four times the film that Mikhalkov's clumsy political advert is.

Using the true-life, half-baked attempt of a Brezhnev-era family musical ensemble (sort of an all-male Soviet version of the Partridge Family) to hijack an Aeroflot flight and defect to America after their popularity had waned as its jumping-off point, Yevstigneyev's second feature film is absurdly tragic, unflinchingly non-judgmental, and just about as unpretentious as a late-1990s Russian film possibly can be.

As what's left of the family reunites in present-day Moscow after 15 years of jail terms, children's homes, and internal exile to the farthest reaches of the Soviet empire, their fruitless attempts to come to terms with the past and the new world that has developed in their absence are depicted in a syncopated chain of alternately humorous and nostalgic episodes. One brother heads for the zoo, where he chats up a caged zebra – in fond remembrance of the representative of that species he recently chowed on as an unpaid miner down in Ukraine. Another heads for a deserted rooftop with his sniper's rifle and takes aim Texas-belltower-style at some young ballerinas in training before finally getting his rocks off by shooting out one of the red stars atop the Kremlin. The Don Juan of the family (a sailor who had until recently been stationed in some remote Eskimo-land where he was the only male around with potent sperm) tries his luck with a dial-a-whore. The youngest, originally introduced as an employee at the Golodnaya Utka bar in Vladivostok (with some dated-looking location shots inside the real-life Moscow Duck that take on a special resonance in wake of recent events), penniless and jonesing hard, heads south to the university (MGU, unrealistically enough) and does a dance for drugs before the appreciative African students hanging on the steps. Meanwhile, older brother Menshikov rocks back and forth drooling and mumbling in his wheelchair in a Dickensian nuthouse – a performance not appreciably different from that in Mikhalkov's Barber, but at least he's not speaking broken English.

Archetypal Soviet relic Nonna Mordiukova handles the duties of the title role. She ably provides much of the film's pretension and is annoying, to be sure. But what other effect could an elderly, clingy widow who has more or less ruined the lives of her five sons (indirectly killing one, even) possibly have? So just sit there and cringe through her extended close-up shots and be glad she ain't your mama.

A handful of nice stylistic touches keep things moving along nicely as the emotional weight imperceptibly accumulates. For one thing, there's the schmaltzy flugel horn-heavy score. This sort of thing went out in Hollywood at about the time Karen Carpenter was purging her last ever binge, but fortunately post-Soviet film composers are still happily reveling in that genre's peculiar glories. The style is especially fitting here, especially as it is occasionally broken up with the musical group's signature upbeat Cuban number. What I'm guessing is some skillful makeup work combines with superb casting to give the four non-Menshikov brothers (at least in their adult incarnations) a surprisingly plausible sibling resemblance. I suppose you could accuse me of betraying a certain latent "all Russians look alike" racism with this statement, but I stand by it, nevertheless. Even the allusion to Quentin Tarantino's black hitman suit (itself a borrowing from Hong Kong gangster films) is well handled – low-keyed and unselfconsciously.

My only real complaint is that too much of the budget was wasted on aerial introductory shots from helicopters rather than splurging for digital surround sound. As a result, it seems like the film's soundtrack is playing through an antique TV speaker when it follows the ear-splitting Lost in Space trailer (which, not surprisingly, is rather more enjoyable than the actual movie), as Mama currently does at the Pushkinsky Cinema.