Of course, Russian cinema has had a rich history, but unlike Hollywood, what few pre-modern Russian films I've been able to see have been rather personal, in a cultural sense. Russians made movies for Russians. Sure they let Hungarians see them, and the Polish had no choice, but it seems like the Russians in their imperial arrogance felt that no one else would appreciate their pains, their delights, their mindboggling bureaucracy. To an extent, they may very well be right.
So starts Varakin's quietly desperate efforts to escape the town which is seemingly populated entirely by people who seem normal from a distance, but get very strange once you get up close. In an early part of of the film, Varakin finds himself at a farmhouse in the middle of nowhere after a taxi dumps him off (the driver is unable to leave the area surrounding the town - shades of Alex Proyas' 1998 film DARK CITY). While sitting at the table in the farm house, a young boy stares him straight in the eyes and tells him "you will never leave our town" and predicts the date of his death. As it turns out, creepy kids are the least of his problems.
Later in the film Varakin is hauled into the police station and interrogated about his relationship with the dead cook. He is shown a picture of himself that the dead man possessed with an inscription in Varakin's handwriting that claims to be the cooks son! At a later point the local prosecutor (Vladimir Menshov) tells Varakin that he believes that the cook may have been assassinated and Varakin used as a witness, with grave political repercussions. At this point you start feeling a bit comfortable. You start feeling like you have a plot to grasp on to. This is when director Karen Shakhnazarov yanks the carpet out from under you. Not only is there a suicide, or maybe murder, but that dead cook was actually a great historical figure... well, in that town's proud and rich history. He was the first person to "dance rock and roll"! While this "plot" is explored a bit, it really has nothing to do with the film's modus operandi, which is to satirize Russian political and social mentality with the incredibly elaborate history of this small town.
Also, the second act has a very long sequence in which Varakin finds himself in the local museum which has been set up in the remnants of the old coal mine. During his guided tour he is shown elaborate, life-size wax dioramas depicting significant events in the town's history. Since my knowledge of Russian history is only slightly more advanced than what I learned in high school ("commies are bad, ummmkay?"), a substantial portion of this scene went right over my head. On the other hand there is so much to appreciate here that transcends the culture gap. A scene where a major character ludicrously fails a public suicide attempt is both darkly hilarious and at the same time rather pitiable. There are endless details to muse over, rife with symbolism and outright surreality. Why do we get musical cues only when Anna (a very minor character) shows up? Why is The Prosecutor wearing a rather loud suit instead of his uniform at the end? Why did the jazz band start to play at exactly that time, indeed?
This style of fish-out-of-water film had been done in Ray Lawrence's BLISS (1985) and Martin Scorsese's AFTER HOURS (1985), but while the latter was a frantic, sweaty, and very American style experience, this is very much a low-key exercise in minimalism with lots of lingering shots and subtle facial expressions to convey alienation, manipulation, conformity and fate. Perhaps the Russians are right. I can't imagine this playing at a multiplex in 1988 right next to DIE HARD, BEETLEJUICE and COMING TO AMERICA... but I really wish it had.