Mikhail Prokhorov’s shenanigans with Right Cause and brawling oligarchs aside, the latest scandal in the Russian blogosphere concerns Russia’s nomination for the upcoming Academy Awards in the “Best Foreign Film” category. Once again, it’s the controversial “court” film director Nikita Mikhalkov (also known as “Nikita Besogon,” or Nikita the Exorcist, after he launched a video blog by that name), who’s got bloggers foaming at the mouth.
The story goes as follows: on September 19, a meeting of Russia’s Oscar Nomination Committee took place by night, cloak-and-dagger style. The vote was held by secret ballot and of the eight voting members of the committee – among them Vladimir Menshov, Vladimir Naumov, Kirill Razlogov, Karen Shakhnazarov, and Nikolai Lebedev – five voted for Nikita Mikhalkov’s film “Burnt by the Sun 2: Citadel.” Mikhalkov himself is also on the committee, but in a show of courtesy had to abstain from voting on his own film.
Mikhalkov’s “Citadel” was up against two other nominees: Alexander Sokurov’s “Faust,” which received the Golden Lion award in Venice, and “Elena” by Andrei Zvyagintsev, which picked up the jury’s special prize at the film festival in Cannes. Both films have already tested the waters of Western film criticism. It must be noted, however, that these two films haven’t been released domestically yet, which is a requirement for the nomination (although this requirement has been skirted before: in the two weeks since the vote, but before the decision gets passed on to the Academy on October 1, the films can still be released locally, as was the case with Mikhalkov’s “The Barber of Siberia”).
“Citadel” is the third installment in the “Burnt by the Sun” trilogy. The first episode earned Mikhalkov an Oscar for best foreign film in 1994. The second part, “Burnt by the Sun 2: Exodus,” was released last year, but met with harsh rhetoric on behalf of film critics. It was a flop at the box office and received very little international exposure. “Citadel’s” performance at the local box office was, well, catastrophic, and the reviews – more scathing than ever before. The film barely recovered ten percent of its production budget.
The chairman of the committee, film director Vladimir Menshov, who won an Oscar for his “Moscow Doesn’t Believe in Tears” in the best foreign film category in 1981, refused to sign the protocol of the vote, thereby publicly decrying the committee’s decision (and as experience shows, few people in modern Russian cinematography have the guts to wage open war on Mikhalkov). He is also suggesting that the committee needs some fresh blood, and that means people who would not be directly dependent on Mikhalkov’s goodwill. “I am now asking, what else needs to be done for [Mikhalkov] to at least admit defeat, to tone down his hubris, to realize that something went wrong, that maybe he needs to sit down and think some more, make a new movie…But no, he chose a different path, claiming that there is conspiracy against him, that there is hunt out for him, that the viewers have turned on him, that outside Russia the American Academy will pay his movie it’s due respect,” Menshov told the Echo of Moscow radio station.
Mikhalkov’s brother, director Andrei Konchalovsky, didn’t support the nomination either, saying that the committee has long lost its objectivity because all kinds of cinematographic organizations aren’t represented on it. The fact that “Citadel” is not a standalone film and thus can hardly be viewed outside the context of the preceding episodes seems to have conveniently escaped the committee.
Some bloggers say the Oscars are a battle of names rather than films, and Mikhalkov is the best bet we’ve got: he won an Oscar for the first film in the series, although his remake of “12 Angry Men” failed to win the award in 2008. “I don’t understand the massive righteous anger surrounding the nomination. It’s puzzling: last year, Russia nominated complete crap, Alexei Uchitel’s film ‘The Edge,’ which is no less schizophrenic, stupid and sometimes outright deceitful than ‘Citadel.” Did anybody complain? Did anyone write angry blog posts or comments? No, we giggled and forgot about it. Because it wasn’t Mikhalkov,” wrote LiveJournal user Dr. van Mogg.
But those who support the “Czar of Russian cinema” seem to be in the minority. “We suck at blockbusters. Nobody’s expecting ‘Saving Private Ivanov’ out of Russia, we are only good at producing deeply psychological, sometime suicidal images. Self-criticism, self-flagellation, sacrifice. Mikhalkov is just blind,” wrote user Ummagumma on Dirty.ru. “Mikhalkov is a kind of cinematographic Putin, who first came to power during fair elections, but then usurped it under the guise of decorative procedures. Like Putin, he likely wants to remain in power until his death,” wrote LiveJournal user Chudinovandrei. “Our very own movie people, some of the few who shape the image of our country abroad, send this great dullness about a formerly great director to the most prestigious international competition…this is total achtung, carramba! Well, you’ve exhausted yourself, Nikita Sergeevich, then retire gracefully. Why do you need to embarrass Russia’s entire cinema at the Oscars?” commented LiveJournal user Felbert.
In any case, it looks like “Citadel” is going to Hollywood, and whether it will even get shortlisted for the award is a far cry. Now, the only way out is for Mikhalkov himself to pull the movie out, like he did last year with “Exodus.” This, however, is highly unlikely. To me, the whole episode just seems like another tale of absurdity with a rather grotesque protagonist – a once-talented director who had the potential to become legendary if only he hadn’t become so heavily involved in politics. As if it needed proving: in modern Russia, power indeed corrupts to the core.
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