Products of Soviet hardships and free-market hedonism, Russian films are often powerful tools of social and political commentary. Many films have been praised for their lyricism and visual force throughout award seasons across the globe. Here are some of the most acclaimed films to have come out of Russia, and they are not to be missed.
Twelve-year-old boy Alyosha goes missing while his parents are at the angry beginnings of a messy divorce. Both adults are consumed by the throes of new love and their bitter hatred for the other, and they are keen to embark on a new life with their respective new lovers without the child that forced them together. The film is the latest release from director Andrei Zvyagintsev and comments on contemporary Russian morality through the relentlessly savage tale of family dysfunction. Among other awards, Loveless took the Jury Prize at Cannes 2017 and was nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film award at the 2018 Academy Awards.
Also directed by Andrei Zvyagintsev, Leviathan is the story of a fisherman who fights back when a corrupt mayor tries to seize possession of his ancestral home. It’s also a brutal indictment of government corruption and another statement about Russia’s collective moral decline. Although it claimed many awards, including a Golden Globe, the film divided audiences upon its national release for its governmental criticism. The film is shot in Terinberka, above the Arctic Circle near Murmansk, which is a great place to catch the northern lights.
A man embarks on a road trip with his friend across the empty expanse of west-central Russia, so he can bury his deceased wife in accordance with traditional Merjan rites. In doing so, the director Aleksei Fedorchenko highlights the peculiarities in the customs we cling to during times of grief. This simple tale of mourning and desire is not just about the loss of a loved one but also of the Merjan traditions and communities, which have been absorbed by the larger Russian culture for the most part. The film is based on a 2008 novella by Denis Osokin.
Twelve jurors must decide the fate of a young Chechen boy accused of murdering his adoptive father. As the jurors deliberate over the child’s fate, the boy’s story of growing up in war is told through flashbacks. Through each juror and the flashbacks, director Nikita Mikhalkov paints a picture of the political and social tensions in post-Soviet Russia. 12 is also an adaptation of Reginald Rose’s play Twelve Angry Men and of the famous film by the same name. Although the film was nominated in most of its premiere award ceremonies and is widely critically acclaimed, it only received a special Golden Lion from the Venice Film Festival.
The father of two young boys, Andrey and Ivan, returns after a 12-year absence. Ivan is suspicious of his hardened father, while Andrey is fearful of him but desperate for a father figure. A male-bonding trip goes tragically awry amidst family dysfunction and macho male cultural attitudes. This debut feature film established director Andrei Zvyagintsev as a formidable cinematic force. Like all Zvyagintsev’s following films, The Return critiques aspects of contemporary Russian society. The film won the Discovery of the Year Award at the 2003 European Film Awards as well as a Golden Globe.
Shot entirely in St Petersburg’s former Winter Palace in one day, Russian Ark is a fantasy/historical drama. The entire 96-minute film is made up of one shot that follows the actors through the epic Hermitage. Over 2,000 actors were required to hit every precise mark (including a ballroom dance sequence!) in order to complete the continuous shot. Remarkably, the take was nailed on the third attempt. The film glides through three decades of Russian history as a French nobleman wanders through the hall of the museum, guiding the viewer through the art as well as meeting the ghosts of past visitors. It is a fresh and visually beautiful take on making sense of Russia’s many epochs.
Set in the post-WWII Soviet Union, The Thief is the story of a young widow and mother, Katya, who falls in love with a criminal who is posing as a soldier named Tolyan. Told from the perspective of the young son, Sanya, The Thief navigates the relationship between the Sanya and Tolyan as the three lives entwine and become codependent. An allegory for Stalin’s deception and his mistreatment of the Soviet people, the film is a tale of lost personal and political innocence. The film was directed by Pavel Chukhrai, and nominated for an Oscar, and won several Nikas (the national Russian film body award).
Probably the most well known of Nikita Mikhalkov’s films (he also directed 12), Burnt By The Sun won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film in 1995. It is a Chekhovian drama set in 1936 in the country house of Colonel Serguei Kotov (played by Mikhalkov), whose life – and that of his family – spirals into upheaval by the political agendas of an unannounced guest. The first anti-Stalin film to emerge out of post-Soviet Russia, Mikhalkov dedicated the film to ‘anyone who was burnt by the sun of the Revolution’ and serves to highlight the fickleness of allegiances and the injustice inherent to absolute power. The film also features Mikhalkov’s daughter, who stars as his onscreen daughter as well.