TAXI BLUES (Pavel Lungin, 1990)

Russian writer-director Pavel Lungin’s raw, rollicking Taksi-Blyuz opens by delightfully reversing our expectation. The screen is black, credits roll, and we hear what could be artillery fire; but when the film proper begins on a Moscow night, the sound of war turns out to be fireworks. Presciently, Lungin might be imagining a candle flaring at its brightest just prior to its burning out, because the Soviet Union, Gorbachev’s land of perestroika, will shortly be extinct.
     When a society shifts as radically as Russia did under Gorbachev, people have to adjust. Taxi-cab driver Ivan Chlykov, dour and no-nonsense, finds the new freedoms frivolous and keeps to his routines of hard work and working out. Saxophonist Alexei Lyosha, one of Ivan’s customers, is as unbridled, as bohemian, as Ivan is disciplined and straight. Alexei is also (like Lungin) Jewish, while Ivan is anti-Semitic, at times fascistic. We have here an odd couple. When Alexei stiffs Ivan for the fare, Ivan confiscates Alexei’s saxophone—an example of the brutishly punitive old way of thinking. Without his horn, Alexei must cancel a concert date, leaving him even more financially strapped. Ivan wants his money; even more, he wants to get even. Nevertheless, an unlikely bond of sorts develops between the two Russians. But Ivan sees himself very much in the driver’s seat, so to speak; he finds himself at a loss, therefore, when Alexei leaves on an American concert tour and comes home a celebrity. However, Alexei’s financial debt will continue as long as he lives.
     One keeps going back to that opening: a cab’s-eye view of Moscow streets finds the cabbie’s vehicle erotically penetrating a dazzlingly lit-up woman amidst bluesy jazz on the soundtrack, but Ivan only thinks about how to get from point A to point B.

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