Dir. ValeryTodorovsky. Russia. 2004. 120mins.
Mary Shelley'sgothic tale is back, this time comfortably adjusted to fit into modern life inMoscow. But no scientific mumbo-jumbo, expressionistic lighting nor extensivemake-up were needed to create this man-made monster; instead he comes not froma lab but from a dark past. If he has been created by a scientist, then it waswith no special purpose in mind.
My StepbrotherFrankenstein looks so blandlyconventional at first sight that it risks being ignored as yet another genrepiece about the war veteran who can't fit back in society; it couldunfavourably be compared to anything from The Best Years Of Our Lives toComing Home and then be discarded as such. Which would be a pity, forits insights about contemporary Russia are worth a second glance.
Bearing all thehallrmarks of a favourite at home (it won the Grand Prix at Sochi and itsensemble cast has been singled out for praise by Russian critics), its futureabroad will very much depend on international critical support, which couldhelp it not only to more festival slots but also into niche theatricalreleases.
Yulik Krymov (LeonidYarmolnik) is an established academic, living his comfortable middle-class lifewith his wife, their adolescent son Egor (Artem Shalimov) and younger daughterAnja (Mariana Ikjina) in a pleasant Moscow flat, when all of a sudden he is hitby a terrible piece of news. A son, Pavel, from a brief, forgotten relationshipin his faraway past as a soldier (Daniil Spivakiovsky), is about enter hislife. His wife, Rita (Elena Yakovleva), a real estate agent, is irate, Egorhates the idea of an older brother, and only little Anya, intrigued by thestrange guest, does not protest.
Surprisingly,however, despite his sinister looks - he lost an eye in Chechnya and wears aneyepatch - Pavel is not really a monster. Rather he is quite well behaved, evenaffectionate and always ready to protect his newly acquired relatives, who haveno real idea of the dangers of theworld they live in.
Still, he has hispeculiarities. He wants to plant a diamond in place of the missing eye tobetter attract girls, hears voices, senses secret enemies that no one else cansee, goes every day to the train station to wait in vain for a comrade-in-arms,with whom he intends to open a garage and takes long walks around the city.
When some hoodlumsdo attack him on the street, it seems to indicate that his suspicions are notunfounded, although another, more prosaic explanation, is soon provided. Thenoises only he hears in the attic turn out to be squatters, once againsuggesting there is some basis to his paranoia.
Partly indignant athaving their calm existence disturbed by this unwanted intruder, and partlyguilty at what has happened to him, the Krymovs can't decide whether he is avictim or a menace nor what to do about him - not that they have much of achoice.
But even that istaken out of their hands when Pavel disappears one day, taking Anja with him.He then sends mysterious instructions to the rest of the family to follow himfor their own good. The climax is a shoot-out in the best Western tradition,leading to an ambivalent ending which leaves serious doubts about who are thegood guys and who are the bad ones.
The trick here, andTodorovsky turns it deftly, is to treat the entire plot as if it is nothingmore than a self-evident series of occurrences in the everyday life of anaverage family. Neither as scary as the title promises, nor even tense untilits final act, the tone generally tends towards the ironic rather thandramatic.
But Pavel, whoemerges from a turbulent past his father would rather deny, is nothing if notthe personification of the culpability, the fear, the restlessness and theedginess of urban life that all threaten to explode violently at any givenmoment.
The cast is led by aperfect Spivakovsky as Pavel, who is equally effective both as a caring olderbrother and as a raving lunatic, an alarming presence even in his nicestmoments.
He is solidlysupported by Yarmolnik, Yakovleva, Shalimov and Iljina, who alternate betweenworry and upset. Sergey Garmash offers a sarcastic cameo as Pavel's commander,pretending to lend the Krymovs a helping hand with their problem. All technicalcredits are above board.
Prod co: Prior-Premier
Int'l sales: Intercinema ArtAgency
Exec prods: Maxim Koroptsov, IljaNeretin, Margo Krzhizhevskaya
Prod: Leonid Yarmolnik
Scr: Gennady Ostrovsky
Cine: Sergey Michalchuk
Ed: Alla Urazbaeva
Prod des: Vladimir Gudilin
Costs: Alexander Osipov
Music: Alexey Aigi
Main cast: Leonid Yarmolnik, ElenYakovleva, Daniil Spivakovsky, Artem Shalimov, Marianna Iljina, Sergey Fazarov,Sergey Garmash