22 April 2019 | Guy Lodge | The Guardian
There was good news in the film world last week, as embattled, iconoclastic Russian director Kirill Serebrennikov was finally liberated after nearly two years of government-mandated house arrest.
Having been detained on apparently trumped-up charges of embezzling state funds for a theatre initiative, his imprisonment became an industry cause celebre attracting the support of Cate Blanchett and Lars von Trier, among others. Serebrennikov’s qualified release (he still can’t leave Moscow) is good news for many reasons, not least among them that he can return to his strange, kinetic brand of film-making.
It was the Serebrennikov-related headlines that accidentally prompted this week’s streaming discovery, as I found myself wondering whether the director’s remarkable 2012 film Betrayal – a memorable standout from that year’s Venice film festival that never got a UK release – had quietly slipped on to any online platforms.
An internet search of the usual channels proved fruitless until I stumbled upon an oddly bounteous site: Soviet Movies Online. Very much a does-what-it-says-on-the-tin enterprise, the service boasts an impressive library of Russian cinema dating from the 1920s to the present day.
Big auteur names abound, from Eisenstein to Tarkovsky to Zvyagintsev, but so do a plethora of less familiar discoveries and curiosities – all available with English subtitles, alongside a variable bag of other linguistic options. Some random clicking got me entranced by a lavishly stylised 1947 musical interpretation of Cinderella from the Lenfilm studio vaults – its sparkly fantasy undercut by sour-cream dashes of Soviet satire.
From the next decade, a stoically handsome adaptation of Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot, awash with mid-century Technicolor gloss to counter the stern, dark narrative, is all the more intriguing for its incompleteness. A sequel intended to cover the novel’s second half was never filmed.
Such films are tucked between more canonised classics. Grigori Chukhrai’s 1959 anti-war saga Ballad of a Soldier, following a young serviceman’s familial and romantic entanglements on a 10-day leave from the front, retains the simple, humane power that made it an international arthouse hit in its day.
Also there is the ravishing, cryptic poetry of Sergei Parajanov’s The Colour of Pomegranates: ostensibly a study of the 18th-century Armenian poet-musician Sayat-Nova that forgoes any biopic tradition for dreamily intuitive artistic channelling.
And yes, there among the more recent selections is Betrayal, in all its floating, vertigo-inducing glory. Serebrennikov’s film is ostensibly a traditional romantic melodrama, built on a chance encounter between cuckolded spouses, but its swooping, gravity-resistant cinematography and visual styling give the ensuing tale of obsession an otherworldly emotional charge. It’s as vivid as I remembered.
As for the Soviet Movies Online site itself, it’s attractively presented, albeit with a clunky search engine and some daft, jokey detailing. Upon signing into your account, the screen display greets you as “comrade”; particularly anxious anti-Corbynites are advised to steer clear.
The pricing model isn’t quite as communist-minded, though its value for money depends on how much you intend to use it.
There is no subscription option, but a single $5 payment (American currency rules, though the site is globally accessible) gets you unlimited access to the library for 24 hours, $15 gets you a week, and $30 a month. Those who stump up $100, meanwhile, get unlimited access, plus the ability to download titles – a cinematic, all-you-can-eat borscht buffet, if you will, and a surprisingly flavourful one.
Original Link: Streaming: the joys of Soviet Movies Online