Amid the storm of Russian voices that rose after a recent screening of director Andrei Nekrasov's new film about the deterioration of Russian society since the collapse of the Soviet Union, one angry woman's was particularly insistent: "Why are you wearing a red shirt? What's the significance of that color for you?"
Nekrasov, accustomed to the controversy since Lubov and Other Nightmares was released in Russia last year, smiled and shrugged. "My shirt?" he said. "Coincidence."
Whatever else can be said about Nekrasov, who has studied in the United States and Britain and has directed plays in his native St. Petersburg and throughout Europe, he's no communist — but he may not be much of a capitalist, either.
He says he's turned down numerous offers to make the kind of commercial thrillers that are as popular in Russia as their Hollywood counterparts are in the United States. He filmed this movie on a shoestring budget, using primarily an amateur cast, and what he calls the "criminal subplot" is more Crime and Punishment than Get Shorty.
Lubov and Other Nightmares may be the most accurate depiction on film of the state of Russian society in what Nekrasov calls "the year 0, when everything has to be reinvented," as Western influences are embraced by the young and older generations look with nostalgia to a seemingly glorious past.
It may be that accuracy, and the bristling intelligence of Nekrasov's vision — critical of both the Soviet past and the leadership of the present — that has caused the controversy in a public hungry for comfort.
"If I were a politician or a diplomat I'd find a different language to discuss problems," Nekrasov said in an interview after the screening at the New York Festival of Russian Film. "As a filmmaker, I think it's my duty to find as acute a language as possible to discuss these issues."
The movie is a kind of cinematic stream-of-consciousness, interlacing black-and-white footage that often recalls the silent films of Soviet master Sergei Eisenstein, grainy color sequences and newsreel footage into the main narrative, which is shot in sometimes breathtaking color.
‘Oppressed and Insulted’
The story is literally seen through the eyes of a young filmmaker who uses his camera and fluency in English to seduce women. He becomes involved with a female assassin who he encounters when she mistakenly targets him as he flees the home of one of his conquests. The assassin at first takes him for the businessman husband of the woman he has just slept with, a man who is her next victim.
Though telling of the story is anything but traditional — Nekrasov mentions Andrei Tarkovsky, the experimental Soviet-era director, and Ingmar Bergman as influences — it is laced with references to Dostoevsky.
Even with its formal innovations, Nekrasov's film is rooted in the tradition of Russian writers and artists as social conscience exemplified by the work of Gogol, Turgenev and Dostoevsky, a tradition that was all but obliterated under 70 years of Soviet rule.
It is not news that the transition to a free market economy has been disastrous for the majority of Russians, as the social services maintained by the Soviets have been abandoned, creating a new class of Oppressed and Insulted, as Dostoevsky called them in the title of his first St. Petersburg novel.
"Russia now more than ever needs that," he said. "If not artists, then who will give a damn about that? We live with a very cynical government and a very cynical upper class who care even less about that than the Tsarist regime."
For all that, Nekrasov seems anything but cynical or angry.
Asked if he wasn't at all afraid to come to New York in the wake of the terror attack on the World Trade Center and the outbreaks of anthrax in the city, he didn't even hesitate.
"For me it was important to come," he said. "In Europe and Russia, it's all been intellectualized. You hear lots of talk about whether America brought it on itself, what the reasons behind it were. I wanted to come New York to see the reality of it, to feel it, to see how people are living with it. For me that is the only way to understand it."