Director: Karen Shakhnazarov. Starring: Leonid Filatov, Oleg Basilashvili, Vladimir Menshov, Armen Dzhigarkhanyan, Evgeniy Evstigneev. USSR, 1988. IMDb: 7.6. My rating: 4/4. Theatre of the absurd, mysterious tragicomedy & black metaphor.
– I need one first class ticket to Moscow.
– There are no tickets.
– I don’t care which one,
first or second class…
– I have neither of them.
– Where is the manager of the station?
– The manager won’t help.
(a dialogue between the train ticket seller and the main character)
It’s called a silent hysteria. The late 80-s, without doubt, were the most prolific period for the underground culture in Soviet Union, especially for the rock music, when so many original bands appeared whose heritage is still relevant today. But mostly they were still prohibited, while the the cinema was changing… ”Of all the arts, for us the cinema is the most important”, as Lenin once said. The censorship became less strict – occasional nudity, freethinking or just weird stuff were allowed.
”City Zero” is the finest dark offspring of that epoch. It wasn’t appreciated by the masses at that time (which is not a good symptom by itself, given that in large part the movie is about crowd manipulation as well…), being an intellectual, allegoric and metaphoric dark tale. It was the 4th feature film by Karen Shakhnazarov, already a successful and experienced director, and he managed to capture the spirit of the falling empire in this theatre of the absurd. As he admitted later, portraying the Perestroika and fall of the USSR wasn’t his priority, but the film outgrew the original intention of the director.
What’s most remarkable, “City Zero” is normally classified and sci-fi/mystery – and if you analyze every single scene separately, there’s nothing completely impossible. The famous cake scene actually happened once. But looking at the whole story makes you feel like slowly drowning in the swamp… It’s kind of ”Donnie Darko” goes on ”Mullholland Drive” in ”The Twilight Zone” atmosphere.
The plot. Engineer Varakin is in charge of some production line on a Moscow factory. He is sent to a small town to discuss the details about new design. He notices something weird in this place, many small details out of place. A naked secretary, a head-shaped cake (and death menace in case he refuses to eat it!), local museum showing fake history… Soon he realizes he is trapped and there is no way to leave the town. Physically.
What I liked. The atmosphere. There’s an ongoing feeling of craziness with Varakin being the only sane person. But do you know that feeling, when everybody around is crazy but not enough for you to really prove something? Or, even worse, nobody whom you can prove? And when you try to change something, it’s you who will appear to be crazy in the eyes of the others. Shock. Disorientation. This is ”City Zero” (and often, our real world too…). It’s no wonder that many saw the film as the metaphor for the fall of the USSR. But the world of “City Zero” actually looks as modern and relevant as it was in 1988.
Varakin is a humble and quiet person, but he is not weak. He accepts, but he does not surrender, passing several levels of comprehension. At first, he is shocked. It seems that it’s only him who notices the wrong. Varakin realizes there’s something missing in this town… some small details that make it not normal. Then, he accepts the rules, hoping that the sanity level will get better, but it doesn’t. He is swallowed more and more by this giant swamp, the town, where the dementia became the normality. Finally, he tries to escape but realizes it’s not possible.
The acting is brilliant. An ensemble cast, featuring the most prominent actors of that time (similar case with Kin-Dza-Dza!). Shakhnazarov, without doubt, found the right tone for this kind of story where it was easy to fall in the mere farce. The madness here is never explicit and everybody’s playing their roles reservedly. Leonid Filatov (main role) had the most difficult part. Here he’s kind of late Bill Murray (”Broken Flowers”, ”Lost in Translation”), expressing a variety of emotions by barely changing his face expression.
The movie really embodied the spirit of the time and wasn’t alone in this attempt. “Parade of the Planets” (1984) is another notable example, although I find it too intelectual and enigmatic.
Worth watching? ”City Zero” easily stands multiple viewings – it’s a rich, multi-layered dark tale. It brilliantly transmits the overall sense of hopelessness against the deaf wall of accepted nonsense and pervert bureaucracy. A labyrinth without an exit, a portrait of the society that still is incredibly relevant anywhere in the world.
Watch also: ”Kin-Dza-Dza!”, ”Donnie Darko”.