HOW I ENDED THIS SUMMER (Aleksei Popogrebskiy, 2010)

Two men operate a meteorological station on an island in the Arctic Ocean: middle-aged Sergei, who knows the ropes; young Pavel, his apprentice, who forgets even to load his shotgun despite the dangers posed by polar bears. While Sergei is temporarily absent fishing for the both of them, Pavel receives a radio message that he is instructed to relay immediately upon Sergei’s return: Sergei’s wife and son, close to certain death, have been hospitalized following a road accident. However, Pavel lacks the character to do this; his lackadaisical air is replaced by increasing evasiveness, frantic nervousness, and mendacity. Grief gets the better of Sergei when Pavel blurts out the much delayed news—and turns to rage against Pavel, whom Sergei attempts to gun down.
     Taking off from a lucid script (best screenplay, Russia’s Golden Eagle Awards), writer-director AlekseI Popogrebskiy’s Kak ya provel etim letom proves an involving, enormously suspenseful, terrifying entertainment. One can hardly keep from yelling out at Pavel, “Hand Sergei the radiogram!”—and, later, despite his weakness, one desperately hopes that he will survive Sergei’s wrath. One is overwhelmed—at least I was—by Pavel’s combination of cunning and cowardice when he contaminates the fish that Sergei has brought back with him. Pavel aims to kill Sergei before Sergei kills him. But Sergei calms down and comes around, perhaps because this surrogate son of his is all the “family” he has left.
     This is a good film, but least of all because of the frigid, treacherous Arctic setting that has so captivated reviewers who apparently place a premium on scenery. Like Sergei, Popogrebskiy grew up in the Soviet Union, whereas Pavel grew up in post-Soviet Russia. The difference in age of the two characters coincides with the historic difference between them. Foolish people keep comparing the New Russia with Stalinist Russia, when it would be more edifying and pertinent to compare this New Russia with Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev’s Russia. (Sergei’s name reflects Gorbachev’s middle name.) The contrast between Sergei’s love of family—until Pavel provokes him off the deep end, Sergei guides his intern humanely, lightly, tolerantly—and Pavel’s adolescent narcissism gets to the heart of what this film is actually about.
      Grigoriy Dobrygin, as Pavel, and Sergei Puskepalis, as Sergei, shared the best actor prize at Berlin. Popogrebskiy won either the best film or best director prize at the London, Dublin and Chicago film festivals, and at the Golden Eagle and the Nika Awards.

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