East by East-West
by Ed Symkus
The only thing even resembling a problem in this finely acted, written and directed, ultimately very sad historical drama is the fact that it lacks a background that tells how its central characters got into the dilemma that takes up its entire two hours.
Here's the situation: According to a brief written explanation at the film's start, the time setting is just after World War II, about 30 years since the calamitous Russian Revolution. With communism in full swing, Russia has opened up its arms to all of those folks who left long ago, inviting them to come back home to the Motherland.
And that's where Alexei (Oleg Menchikov), his French wife, Marie (Sandrine Bonnaire), and their young son, along with many others, are headed, from France. Hopes are high. He's to be a doctor in Russia, where a whole new life awaits them.
What's lacking here is knowing what their life was like in France. If that had been shown, it would have meant a lot more to hear their landlady in their new, cramped, noisy, five-family apartment in Kiev pull Marie aside and whisper, "Why did you come? Didn't you know?"
But this is really a small complaint in a film that clearly does show that these people have made a mistake in coming back "home." For home is now a place where if you speak French -- and our family does -- you are referred to as foreigners. If, as a particularly vicious member of the Russian secret police suggests, you are returning from another place, there's a 90 percent chance you're a spy. If you do anything differently at all, you are watched, constantly, by everyone.
Practically from the moment Sergei and family step on Russian soil, they start talking of going back. But their passports have been taken and they're now Russian citizens, and Russia doesn't want them going anywhere. Alexei knows that if he even makes a murmur about leaving, he'll most likely be sent off to a work camp.
So they give life in Russia a try. He's a doctor in a large factory. She's a wardrobe laundress for the Russian National Choir. He's totally disillusioned, but knows he must act as if he's content. She's totally freaked out and isn't afraid to speak her mind about this horrid country.
Director Regis Wargnier, who also made the excellent historical epic, Indochine, pulls no punches in portraying the Russia of the 1940s and 1950s as a place where the bureaucrats who run it believe they know what's good for its citizens, but they know nothing of feelings or of freedom. So the film works on a couple of levels -- as an intimate character study of a family in emotional turmoil (the relationship between Alexei and Marie is on a rocky road) and as an examination of a government not only stifling, but also abusing its people.
Surprisingly, the film doesn't give much attention to the plight of the couple's young boy. He's just kind of always around in the background. Instead, it focuses on a different character, Sacha (Sergei Bodrov, Jr.), the grandson of our family's landlady, who is forced, by circumstance, to move in with them. He's a 17-year-old, very promising swimmer, who could do his country proud, if only he, too, didn't want to escape. The film subtly weaves him into the center of the story when, after Alexei takes up with a woman living across the hall, a devastated Marie appears to be taking some possibly romantic interest in Sacha.
Then there's Catherine Deneuve, who's splashed all over the film's ads, but in actuality has a few cameos, rather than even a supporting role. But her part, as a rabble-rousing French actress trying to help Marie and Alexei with their plight, is one that's integral to the plot, and is more prominent in the second half.
Although the film moves rather slowly, mood changes are constant. As the story jumps ahead, sometimes by months, sometimes by years, there are moments of light, when it looks like things might eventually go well for our heroes. But at its dark heart, this is one terribly depressing downer of a movie, with grim music to heighten that feeling.
Even so, the heartbreaking, incredibly strong performance by Sandrine Bonnaire, and the stoic one by Oleg Menchikov, will keep viewers from falling into a funk about the goings-on. It's depressing enough to know that the story here is based on a series of true events. The performances and the director's assured presentation -- a sequence juxtaposing a glorious concert, a brutal interrogation, and a daring escape is stunning -- somehow make it all quite fascinating to watch.