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‘The Russian Woodpecker’ evokes fear over a Soviet-era mystery

"The Russian Woodpecker," a Ukrainian victim of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster discovers a dark secret and must decide whether to risk his life and play his part in the revolution by revealing it.

“The Russian Woodpecker,” a Ukrainian victim of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster discovers a dark secret and must decide whether to risk his life and play his part in the revolution by revealing it.

(Chad Gracia / Sundance Film Festival)

The documentary “The Russian Woodpecker” is provocative, spooky and just a little nutty. Director and co-editor Chad Gracia combines Soviet history, a revolutionary hypothesis, tales of nuclear fallout and the musings of an eccentric Ukrainian artist in an attempt to help solve a seemingly unsolvable mystery.

Fedor Alexandrovich, a wild-eyed, wild-haired Kiev set designer — and our guide here — has a theory: The 1986 explosion at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant was ordered by a Moscow bureaucrat to conceal the utter failure of the nearby Duga antenna. This was the massive, scandalously expensive radar system built in the mid-1970s as, some believed, a Cold War weapon of Soviet mind control.

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That Chernobyl native Alexandrovich was exposed as a child to the earth-changing catastrophe — he still has radioactive strontium in his bones — fuels his rigorous search for the elusive truth. But as captured here by Gracia and Artem Ryzhykov, the film’s game cinematographer and Alexandrovich’s on-screen cohort, the investigation proves more kaleidoscopic than cohesive; a fool’s errand to some extent.

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Gracia interviews a sizable array of former Soviet officials, scientists and other era observers, some filmed in secret. But these chats reflect the contradictory, party-line nature of their country’s long-held communication tactics more than they shed light on any potential connection between the Duga and the Chernobyl meltdown. Yet for Gracia and Alexandrovich, perhaps that kind of knee-jerk obfuscation is the point.

Things also take on a performance art quality, especially when the theatrical Alexandrovich tours the remains of the hulking Duga, which in its day as a radio transmitter emitted rhythmic clicking sounds — hence the “woodpecker” moniker.

Deeper, more authentic emotion kicks in as Alexandrovich fears his probing will endanger his family and Ryzhykov becomes almost fatally enmeshed in the Kiev street protests of 2014. These personal moments effectively double down on the film’s position: Paranoia and fear remain alive and not so well in this pivotal, precarious part of the world.

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“The Russian Woodpecker”

MPAA rating: None

Running time: 1 hour, 21 minutes. In Russian with English subtitles.

Playing: Laemmle’s Music Hall, Beverly Hills.

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