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A movie for every day of the year – a good one

17 July

Czar Nicholas II and family executed, 1918

On this day in 1918, the former ruler of Russia, Nicholas Romanov, Emperor and Autocrat of All the Russias, having had a disastrous reign during which he had presided over the collapse of his once-great country, was shot and killed, along with his family. He had abdicated the year before, after a series of military defeats and revolutions, culminating in the February Revolution of 1917. For a while his family had lived under house arrest but in comparative luxury, though rations had increasingly been tightened and servants had been dispensed with as the mood towards the former ruler hardened. He had asked the British for asylum, and this had been offered, only for his cousin, George V, to overrule the government.

In the early hours of 17 July 1918, Nicholas, his family, doctor and three servants were woken, led to a basement room in the Ipatiev house in Yekaterinburg. They were told that they had been condemned to death by the Ural Soviet of the Workers’ Deputies. Nicholas objected and was immediately shot by Yakov Yurovsky, leader of a squad of Bolshevik secret police. After a few more shots to the chest, Nicholas died. In the meantime the rest of the squad started firing at the family and retainers. The children survived the longest, having so many jewels sewn into their clothes meant that some bullets couldn’t get through. Bayonets and bullets to the head soon finished the business.

4 (2005, dir: Ilya Khrzhanovsky)

Prepare to be dazzled. Ilya Khrzhanovsky’s debut starts with a hooker, a piano tuner and a meat salesman meeting in a bar in the early hours of the morning, where they’re telling each other an elaborate pack of lies about what each does for a living (hooker, piano tuner and meat salesman don’t come into it).

This unique film then spins off into god knows what, a wider story about Russia, the stories it tells itself about itself, and the way a new world is constantly being created out of bits of the old. Perhaps. Working off a script by avant-garde veteran Vladimir Sorokin, director Ilya Khrzhanovsky presents us with a vision of Russia that might have been dreamt up by the CIA – the vodka, the meaty pork diet, evidence of heavy industry everywhere, gangsters all over the place, old babushkas cackling, drunk. And the dogs. And the police. Not so much a satire on Russia as a satire on satires on Russia, it’s a remarkable, overcooked richly seasoned stew of imagery, people, places and cinematography.

Hungarian miserablist Béla Tarr gets the odd visual namecheck, especially in the long sequence in which the hooker Marina heads off to a village to try and find out what happened to her now-dead sister. What actually did happen to her sister isn’t important. In 4 (Chetyre in Russian) it’s mostly about the visuals, a near monochrome succession of beautifully nihilistic images that will either delight or infuriate (look up the usually measured Neil Young’s enraged review if you want the latter – here). Its most iconic sequence takes place in a gloomy room where a gaggle of old women are making the faces for baby-sized dolls. They do this by chewing hunks of bread, then form the dribbly pulp into the features. As they work, they sing, old songs about Stalin, sentimental ditties. They talk among themselves, almost ignoring Marina, and the subtitling gets a bit sporadic here as well, as if the film is wandering off into the crones’ reverie too. The women get the vodka out, start getting drunk, begin to expose their breasts, laughing like crows as they pour vodka over the wrinkly empty pillows. They seem to be real people, these old dears, not actors, and they also seem to be really drunk, and it appears to be this sequence – the possible exploitation rather than the mammaries – that gets people exercised.

Around this point Marina and what look like her sisters disrobe too, in a sauna sequence, yet no one in the criticsphere seems too bothered about that sort of exploitation.

It is all deliberately nightmarish and to describe it in terms of plot doesn’t really work at all. Orwellian is what these sort of fever dreams are often described as, and with the addition of some numerology – the number four is everywhere, from the quartet of curs hanging around in the street as the film opens, right to the end – the creation of an air of mystery seems to be the intention. But then isn’t mystery one of the key cliché constituents of the dark soul of old mother Russia?

Why Watch?

  • A remarkable debut
  • Kirill Vasilenko’s atmospheric soundscape
  • The brilliant imagery
  • Marina Vovchenko’s performance

4 – Watch it now at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2014

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