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Russian drama takes the stage at Cannes in the sweet 'Leto' and the scathing 'Donbass'

Russian drama takes the stage at Cannes in the sweet 'Leto' and the scathing 'Donbass'
Roma Zver and Irina Starshenbaum in the movie "Leto." (Charades)

The 71st Cannes Film Festival is underway (May 8-19), and L.A. Times critic Justin Chang is there, seeing as many movies as possible and writing about it for a day-by-day, film-by-film diary. This is one in a series of entries spanning from the opening festivities to closing night. For more entries and reviews, click here.

Russia and Iran are never far from the news these days, but recently they have made headlines in Cannes for the same dubious reason. Both countries have filmmakers represented in the festival's prestigious competition, and both have refused to allow those filmmakers to attend.

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To be clear: The Iranian writer-director Asghar Farhadi had no difficulty traveling to Cannes for the opening-night premiere of his new film, "Everybody Knows." But at his news conference, Farhadi expressed sorrow and unease at the plight of his countryman Jafar Panahi, who in films like "The Circle" and "Offside" has been a consistently sharp critic of Iran's social policies. Panahi was arrested in 2011 and has not been allowed to travel abroad since; unless some form of amnesty is granted, he will not be in Cannes for the unveiling of his competition entry, "3 Faces."

While the specific circumstances are different, Panahi's plight eerily mirrors that of the Russian stage and screen director Kirill Serebrennikov ("Betrayal," "The Student"), who in 2017 was detained and accused of fraud and embezzlement. His many allies in the artistic community contend that the charges are phony and politically motivated, likely in response to Serebrennikov's criticism of Russia for annexing Crimea in 2014, as well as his support of Russia's LGBTQ community. (Among the artists who have called for the charges to be dropped: Cate Blanchett, the president of this year's Cannes competition jury.)

The creative team behind "Leto" holds a sign for the film's embattled Russian director.
The creative team behind "Leto" holds a sign for the film's embattled Russian director. (Clemens Bilan / European Pressphoto Agency)

And so when Serebrennikov's "Leto" premiered in competition on Wednesday night, its 48-year-old director was represented only by a sign bearing his name, carried by his collaborators as they walked up the red carpet and made their way into the Grand Théâtre Lumière. If Serebrennikov's absence cast an inescapable pall over what should have been a celebratory evening, it also lent a subdued resonance to his lovely, wistful new movie: Far from an angry political screed, it feels both removed from its fraught larger context and shrewdly, poignantly attuned to it. (The movie was close to wrapping production when the director's house arrest began, and he was able to oversee post-production during his detainment.)

A sweepingly immersive ode to Leningrad's '80s underground rock scene, "Leto" coalesces loosely around the friendship and musicianship of two real-life artists, Viktor Tsoi (a soulful Teo Yoo) and Mike Naumenko (Roma Zver). Their arcs are never cleanly defined in a movie stronger on textural beats than narrative hooks. It drifts freely from bonfire-lit beach parties to low-key jam sessions to the Leningrad Rock Club, one of the few state-sanctioned venues for rock musicians, where youthful audiences are made to sit still, listen quietly and suppress every head-bobbing impulse.

That's about as close to oppression as the movie gets — or, frankly, conflict. At one point, Mike's devoted wife, Natasha (Irina Starshenbaum, excellent), confesses her desire to kiss Viktor; her husband gives her his blessing. There are flickers of rivalry between the two musicians, stemming mainly from Mike's gentle but annoying insistence on "improving" Viktor's songs, but friendship prevails at every turn. Both Tsoi and Naumenko died tragically young, but "Leto," flouting the rise-and-fall conventions of its genre, is insistently a celebration of their lives.

Shot in dreamy black-and-white, but punctuated by an occasional hot burst of color, "Leto" unfolds to the rhythms of its chosen scene, broken by occasional fourth-wall ruptures and archly stylized musical perfomances. At one point, a group sing-along to Talking Heads' "Psycho Killer" breaks out on a bus, in a hallucinatory sequence festooned with deliberately crude on-screen graphics. Most of these surreal interludes lack the go-for-broke audacity needed to pull them off and sweep you up, but they're endearing even in their awkwardness. "Leto" is undeniably woozy and borderline self-indulgent, which is to say it pretty much nails its moment.

A scene from the movie "Donbass."
A scene from the movie "Donbass." (Pyramide International)

“Donbass” strikes a nerve

Still, for those who wanted something nastier — like, say, a blast of pure, unfiltered rage aimed in Russia's general direction — Cannes programmers shrewdly contrived to have "Leto" premiere the same day as "Donbass," a brutal, excoriating cinematic dispatch from war-torn eastern Ukraine. The latest film from the prolific Belarus-born Ukrainian director Sergei Loznitsa, who was in competition just last year with "A Gentle Creature," this nightmarish human circus of a movie brings us into the heart of the savage conflict between the Ukrainian government, allied with Europe and the West, and the Putin-backed Donetska People's Republic.

This conflict plays out in scene after scene, with much variation in circumstance but little modulation in tone. "Donbass" is a wearying experience, very much by design. It's structured as a series of loosely connected vignettes, never privileging one set of characters over another, but instead revealing the same process of collective dehumanization through different prisms.

And in ways that could not be better timed to our Orwellian present, Loznitsa continually reveals the contours of a war driven by propaganda. Welcome, in other words, to Fake News Central: In the opening sequence, we see crisis actors being made up for a phony TV broadcast, on which they will denounce a series of carefully controlled explosions as attacks by "fascists." The virtues of a free press come under attack in another scene, in which a woman dumps a bucket of excrement over the head of a local official, claiming that she has been libeled by a local newspaper.

A brilliant formalist, Loznitsa likes to turn his camera on crowds in motion, turning each sequence into a collective indictment. Working with the great Romanian cinematographer Oleg Mutu, he shoots in long, unblinking takes that draw out the tension to unbearable extremes; it's as if the director were trying to see how much anger, despair and madness he can pack into the frame without cutting away. This persistence of vision is an astonishing technical and choreographic achievement, but it's also a powerfully moral one. In the world of "Donbass," a war fought with lies becomes something all too terrifyingly real.

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Twitter: @JustinCChang

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