THE VANISHED EMPIRE (Karen Shakhnazarov, 2008)

Written by Sergei Rokotov and Evgeny Nikishov, and brilliantly directed by Karen Shakhnazarov, Ischeznuvshaya imperiya may be a masterpiece.
     In mid-1970s Moscow, 18-year-old Sergei has begun university. He is immersed in a social life that involves vodka-fueled comradery, the purchase of Western rock albums on a floating black market, and his romancing Lyuda Beletskaya, the volatility of their relationship largely the result of competing claims on his attention and his irresponsibility. When she becomes sick, his mother makes Sergei promise not to abandon his younger brother and elderly grandfather. At hospital, as Sergei leaves down a forlornly lit corridor, his mother calls out to him, but when he turns around she catches herself. “Later,” she says; but there is no later. Shakhnazarov creates a haunting vision where all loose ends turn out to be dead ends.
     Pressing lightly, the director of The Rider Named Death (Vsadnik po imeni Smert, 2004) creates a vision where such “ends” prefigure the disappearance of the Soviet Union. The last meeting we see between Sergei and Lyuda—pregnant, she is poised to marry the baby’s father—plays out outside her apartment building, with a parked car, completely covered in cloth, in the background: a stunning metaphor for private and national worlds going nowhere, without a future. His grandfather has told Sergei about the “Ozymandias”-type ruin that now exists where the ancient Khorezm civilization had once held sway. In a final, hauntingly Antonionian movement, Sergei even visits this “City of the Winds” into which so much is passing.
     An offhanded 30-year-later coda finds Sergei, whom we only hear as a voice, and his long-ago romantic rival meeting by chance in an airport waiting room. Sergei translates Farsi for a living, and the other man’s marriage to Lyuda lasted a year.

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