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Poetry in pictures: a film about Joseph Brodsky

Andrei Khrzhanovskii’s recent Russian film about the poet Joseph Brodsky evokes elements of his childhood, internal exile and emigration with history and stunning footage of St Petersburg. But above all, it is an homage, a cinematic celebration of his poetry

Andrei Khrzhanovskii did not intend his latest film A Room and Half to be a biopic about the Russian Nobel Prize winner poet Joseph Brodsky (1940-1996). The film is a sensitive cinematic interpretation of Brodsky’s texts and, in particular, the essay with the same title (in Russian version), which was written in 1985 when the exiled poet lived in USA. The English title of the essay differs slightly: ‘In a Room and Half’. In the essay, Brodsky compares the process of recollecting the past with developing a film. Hence, it is not surprising that Khrzhanovskii finds this essay so eminently suitable for translating into moving pictures.

Brodsky 1

Grigorii Ditiatkovskii as Joseph Brodsky in a new film directed by Andrei Khrzhanovskii

The film follows the fragmented structure of the essay, representing a chain of memories of Brodsky’s life before exile. The essay consists of 45 sections, or a series of ‘written photographs’. Brodsky observes that memory ‘contains details but not a full picture of the scene’.  Khrzhanovskii draws on this idea and applies it to film. He achieves even further fragmentation by using a range of cinematic techniques and juxtaposing animation, still photographs, feature film, the audio recordings of Brodsky’s voice reading his poetry, and his doodles which come to life as cartoon characters. The use of such a variety of techniques allows the portrayal of memory and art at work to illustrate another Brodsky idea which is that memory and art share one commonality, an ‘ability to select, a taste for detail’. ’Khrzhanovskii's selection of scenes, texts and images is insightful, perceptive and informative.

All fragmented images and techniques are organically woven into the whole. Memories are glued together by a loose plot. The film begins with a panning shot of the room in the Leningrad (now St Petersburg) communal apartment on Liteinyi Prospekt, in which Brodsky lived with his parents. The room has been abandoned, wallpaper has come off the walls, and the wind is blowing through open windows. Suddenly, the telephone rings. Brodsky, played by Grigorii Ditiatkovskii, is on the other end of the line calling from New York. The film imagines how Brodsky might have returned to his parents’ home. In real life, the poet never came back to Russia having been forced to leave the USSR in 1972. Neither had he had a chance to see his parents again, despite their multiple attempts to obtain a visa to visit their son in the USA. In the film, Brodsky makes his imaginary journey back to Leningrad by boat. We see him walking to the boat and sitting down on the deck smoking a cigarette. Water is an image of time, and the journey takes us back into the past.

Brodsky as a boy (Evgenii Ogadzhanian) is watching his parents in their ‘room and a half’ through binoculars. In 1948, the poet’s father (Sergei Iurskii) returns from the war, wearing a Navy uniform. His mother (Alisa Freindlikh) is delighted to have her husband back. The parents are flirting and dancing to the popular war-time song ‘A Chance Waltz’ (‘Sluchainyi val’s’) sung by Leonid Utesov. The camera focuses on various objects that the father brought from the war. However, it is not just a cinematic technique, but a reference to Brodsky’s poetic world in which inanimate objects often take the front stage. In one of his essays, he discusses the role of wartime objects in his childhood: they were windows on the life of people outside the USSR.

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Alisa Friendlikh as Brodsky’s mother, Sergei Iurskii as his father. Throughout the film, the director Andrei Khrzhnovskii demonstrates his intimate knowledge of Brodsky’s poetic themes and imagery.

Juxtaposing different cinematic genres helps soften some of the harsh pages of Soviet history. For instance, the story of how St Petersburg apartments were taken away from their owners after the Revolution, and populated with new lodgers, who were provided with a room per family and all the facilities to share, is told with the help of speeded up animated images, some acting to portray a drunk lodger standing by the sink. The surrealist representation of a scene with Stalin is, on the other hand, piercing and somewhat crude. It is a reference to Brodsky’s being a Jew and Stalin’s plans to move all Jewish people to the Jewish autonomous region in the Far East, close to the Chinese border. Brodsky’s family was at some point threatened by a move to Birobidzhan, the centre of the region. 

Brodsky’s teenage years and his youth are depicted in a few scenes when he brings home his girlfriends and they make love behind the wardrobe and a wall of suitcases in Brodsky’s corner of the room. The crude representation of intimate scenes exaggerates the awkward living conditions in which there was no privacy in the communal life. Then, Khrzhanovskii is back to his sensitive interpretative mode. There’s a brief reference to Brodsky’s trial before his exile, at which he was sentenced to hard labour for parasitism. These scenes are mostly portrayed with the help of Brodsky’s doodles, which are turned into moving images.

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The Cat Muron

The poet’s post-exile life is represented partly through a series of broken dialogues between Brodsky and his parents. This lack of communication creates a vacuum of understanding. For instance, there are two consecutive scenes: both take place in the USA. These scenes are carefully cut and edited, replacing the 'real' poet in the first scene (Brodsky is singing 'Ochi chernye' or 'Black Eyes' with the actor (Ditiatkovskii-Brodsky and his friends singing 'The Chance Waltz' in a restaurant). It is further complicated by the presence of Brodsky's real life friends in the second scene. Then, Ditiatkovskii-Brodsky gets up and picks up a telephone receiver. He dials his parents’ number to pick their brains about the lyrics of ‘The Chance Waltz’. Khrzhanovskii adds the latter scene to reflect on tricks that memory plays on people, to reveal a lack of communication (his mother can’t hear what Brodsky says and misinterprets him) and to contrast Brodsky’s life in USA with his parents’ life back in their Soviet apartment, which it is their turn to clean that day. Thus, the scene in the restaurant is there to take us back to the poet’s Leningrad apartment, but not to reveal more about Brodsky’s life in USA. Towards the end of the film, Brodsky is finally reunited with his parents in their ‘room and a half’ but they all appear to be dead.

Throughout the film, Khrzhnovskii demonstrates his intimate knowledge of Brodsky’s poetic themes and imagery. For instance, architecture and, in particular, the classical architecture of his hometown Leningrad is fundamental to Brodsky. In the film, Brodsky as a boy is shown walking around the city with his father. The camera focuses on details of architectural ensembles, which the boy Brodsky examines. Yet again, this is a reference to the essay: ‘the child is first of all an aesthete, he reacts to the appearance, to the visible, ... to the form.’

However, Khrzhanovskii is not always entirely faithful to the original. In an interview, the director says that when he read Brodsky’s essay he realised that it was about him and for him: “We shared this understanding of a communal flat, this ‘room and a half’. We were both the only sons of parents who were no longer so young. We had the same friends, the same interests.” (Khrzhanovskii interview with Nick Bradshaw in BFI online). This affinity that Khrzhanovskii feels with Brodsky gives him the confidence to make some personal comments. In addition, this is not Khrzhanovskii's first film about Brodsky.  That was the whimsical A Cat and a Half (2003). The two films took him 10 years to make.

Over such long period of time, the director has had a chance to get to know the poet’s work in depth.  He was born only six months before Brodsky and he too suffered from harassment and censorship. His film The Glass Harmonica (1968) was cut and shelved. Perhaps as a result of this difference in their personal experience, Khrzhanovskii is not interested in Brodsky’s post-exile life, which is almost entirely absent from the film.

However, it should be noted that Brodsky did not spend his life in exile mourning the past. In fact, he elsewhere emphasised that it was the opposite. He started writing in the English language, which he adored. He translated his own poetry into English. He married. He had a child. He discovered and fell in love with Venice where he returned every year. His life was rich and fruitful. But the film is a cinematic interpretation of Brodsky’s texts, rather than a biopic.

On 9 July 2010 at the Empire Cinema, Leicester Square, there will be a showing of “A Room and a Half” (7.15)  with discussions and poetry readings (starting at 6.00).  For tickets contact 0871 471 4714.  The film will then run at Empire Leicester Square

A Room and a Half is distributed in UK and Ireland by Yume Pictures Ltd.

 

 

About the author

Natalia Rulyova was born in Perm, Russia. She is Director of Russian Studies at the University of Birmingham.

Read On

Works by Joseph Brodsky

Nativity Poems (bilingual edition), Farrar, Straus & Giroux Nov 2002

Collected Poems in English, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Apr 2002

So Forth, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Mar 1998

On Grief & Reason (Essays), Farrar, Straus & Giroux Apr 1997

Watermark, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Jun 1993

Less than One (Essays), Farrar, Straus & Giroux, May 1987

More On

The film is the winner of numerous awards including: 

Best film at East of the West Competition Karlovy Vary IFF 2009;

Grand Prix IFF “Zerkalo” named after A.Tarkovsky 2009;

Prize of the Guild of Russian film critics of the IFF “Zerkalo” named after A.Tarkovsky 2009;

The Grand Prize of the 17th Festival of Russian Cinema “Window into Europe”.


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