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Film review: 'Moskvitch, My Love' (dir. Aram Shahbazyan)

As a testament to Soviet nostalgia, the plot of Moskvitch, My Love is peculiar: a father's blind pursuit of a car he can neither afford nor drive, hoping for a son who will never return.

Maxim Edwards
3 August 2015

For Armenian director Aram Shahbazyan, a true tragedy of the post-Soviet era has been the fate of his generation's fathers. Once heroes of labour and emblems of respect, their age prevented them from taking the steps necessary to tackle the uncertainties of a new society – they are, in his words, a 'lost generation'.

The story of Hayak 'Hamo' Avanesian, protagonist of Shahbazyan's recent Moskvitch, My Love is true to form. Having fled Azerbaijan during the collapse of the Soviet Union, Hamo and his wife Aroos live a meagre existence in rural Armenia, surviving on the few dollars their son is able to send from Moscow. It has long been his dream to own a bright red Moskvitch: another symbol of that city, a car to symbolise Soviet technological prowess and modernity. Every morning in a dream-like ritual, Hamo polishes a toy Moskvitch he has cherished ever since leaving Azerbaijan. When local villager Sako puts his real Moskvitch on sale, Hamo seizes the opportunity. 

Moskvitch, My Love is a joint collaboration between Armenian, French, and Russian cinematographers. The film was first shown in Armenia in February 2015, and has since appeared at the Moscow Film Festival. Nevertheless, these international credentials have not tempted Shahbazyan to forget the local; the film's cast comprises mostly actors from regional theatres across Armenia, many of whom have never before appeared on screen.

Martun Ghevondyan (Hamo) is an actor from the local theatre of Gavar, a small town on the shores of Lake Sevan. Filming took place in the Gegarkhunik Region on Sevan's shore, in the villages of Akhpradzor and Lchavan, and the town of Vardenis. The search for a Moskvitch suitable for Shahbazyan's purposes lasted several months, and one was finally located in a small village in central Armenia. 

Nostalgia

Moskvitch, My Love is set in 1996, before Armenian refugees from Azerbaijan had been fully integrated (a fact which hampers Aroos's already dismal search for employment), but its scenes of rural life in Armenia could have been set in the present day.

 Armine Aghayan. Some rights reserved.

Hamo, Aroos, and the Moskvitch. Photo: Armine Aghayan. Some rights reserved.

Nostalgia is timeless subject matter. The all too human motivation for it, however, is the most enduring feature of Shahbazyan's film. Sitting behind the wheel of a Moskvitch, for Hamo is to own a symbol of a power he never had. In 1991, the values, goals, and worth of an entire generation vanished alongside the Soviet state. Shahbazyan's 'lost generation' was told that the goals for which they had strived had come to naught – or worse, were based on a capricious lie.

Though subcultures such as Germany's Ostalgie or the Balkan Yugonostalgia have stirred debate, the real depth of the psychological scars, which entailed after the collapse is not necessarily appreciated by western Europeans. Hamo's dream is more poignant given its origins – Moskvitch, My Love is inspired by the diary of a certain Vladimir Shirinyan, which fell into the director's hands. Hamo's diary, in which he records his struggle to raise the elusive 'Moskvitch Money', is a small homage. 

Shahbazyan's 'lost generation' was told that the goals for which they had strived had come to naught – or worse, were based on a capricious lie. 

Moskvitch, My Love is bittersweet, a tragicomedy that revels in its cultural references to the Soviet past, and flaunts them – though probably to the incomprehension of viewers from outside the post-Soviet space (the film's very title is a play on 1974's Moscow, My Love). In his search to raise the 800USD to make the purchase, Hamo approaches a vendor at Vernissage, Yerevan's famous flea market, and presents boxes of medals. His father's military decorations from Stalingrad and his own as a Veteran of Labour are of little interest – the vendor has sold five already. 

This is a landscape littered with the detritus of the post-Soviet collapse – useless cars, desolate houses, howling halls of hulking, unused communal buildings. Stunning cinematography engages with the austere beauty of Lake Sevan and Armenia's Gegarkhunik province. One striking and often repeated shot shows the skeleton of an unfinished warehouse on a windswept hill – two rows of concrete pillars point skyward.

The ground between them is used as a dump for scrap metal. To the bracing tune of a Soviet-era ode to the Moskvitch, Hamo pieces it together again, miracle-working as a part time mechanic for local villagers. Once thwarted by an envious collective farm manager in Azerbaijan, Hamo will render his dream a reality through labour. Nikita Khrushchev hangs from the wall in his house, and looks on with what we assume is mute approval.

Dreams versus harsh reality

Hilda Ohan plays the strong and taciturn Aroos, for whom her husband's infatuation with the Moskvitch is both an endearing reminder of simple joys and a dangerous distraction from the harsh realities of making ends meet.

Martun Ghevondyan at Yerevan's Golden Apricot festival. (c) Maxim Edwards.

Though the focus of many of the most touching scenes in Shahbazyan's film, Ohan's is an intriguing yet underdeveloped character, whose purpose sometimes appears to be solely to endure her husband's whims, anchoring his dreams to a bleak reality. Aroos gradually becomes a feature of Hamo's dream – rather than an obstacle to it – as he is determined to 'take her for a drive'. His efforts to do so are most successful at the kitchen table, in a childish pantomime of a dream, featuring a plate as steering wheel, fuelled by a drunken birthday celebration. Its owner allows him to briefly borrow the Moskvitch, though with disastrous consequences. For all his infatuation, Hamo cannot drive. 

Aroos and Hamo are objects of derision and mockery for their neighbours, as they endure together a regular local bus journey. Hamo's obsession with the Moskvitch is a prime target. It is for his son Garik, insists Hamo, who, when he returns from Moscow, will take them all out for a drive.

Fellow passengers laugh. Hamo's son will not come back home – and neither will theirs. Shahbazyan's world is populated by pensioners and their grandchildren, but the distant sons and daughters are a constant presence – a reminder of helplessness and implied emasculation. Armenia – particularly rural Armenia – is a major source of seasonal labour migrants for Russia, whose remittances form some 20% of the country's GDP.

Absent sons and forlorn hope of their return have featured in other prominent Armenian films such as Huner Saleem's Vodka Lemon (2003), both protagonists making ritual visits to the post office for a lifeline of letters and dollars. Paradoxically, Hamo's eagerness for hard work is interpreted as a shameful embarrassment – is his son not sending him enough?

Tragedy interferes with Hamo's dream at every turn, depleting his 'Moskvitch Money' and rendering his pursuit of it ever more impractical – and perceived as insensitive to the suffering of his wife and son. Hamo's dream gradually begins to slip from his hands – 'chem spasum' (I cannot wait), says Sako on every encounter, as his patience wears thin. Initially, Moskvitch, My Love appears to reconcile its tragic and comic elements only with some difficulty. However, the strength of Ester Mann and Levon Minasian's script comes to the fore in these later scenes, retaining a sardonic yet playful humour worthy of the Radio Yerevan anecdotes so beloved of Hamo's generation.

Be careful what you wish for

In a final, beautifully cynical and last-ditch attempt at granting Hamo his Moskvitch, Shahbazyan introduces a corrupt Yerevan politician. Gurgen Hambardzumyan (campaigning slogan: 'More than Life!') arrives with ready cash, empty promises, and a hunger for easy PR opportunities, mounting a lectern on the frozen mud of the village square.

As his retinue of suited thugs looks on at a crowd of wry, contemptuous villagers, Hambardzumyan offers to purchase Hamo his Moskvitch, as pre-emptive gratitude for Hamo's vote-to-be. 'Politicians don't buy a Moskvitch' pipes up a voice from the crowd, 'they buy a Mercedes'.

For a testament to Soviet nostalgia, the plot of Moskvitch, My Love would seem a peculiar one. Hamo embarks on the blind pursuit of a car he cannot drive, at a price he cannot afford, hoping for a son who will never return. His love for the Moskvitch is in part one born of a need for validation of the world, which he lost, yet had produced something of enduring value. It is a metaphor, says Shahbazyan, that 'nothing is lost forever'.

More prosaic motivations should also be considered. 'If we had that Moskvitch,' murmurs Hamo, 'we would have fled from our village, and left it to all the wolves.'

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