Dir. Alexei Uchitel. Russia, 2003. 90 min.

Alexei Uchitel's first film since he represented Russia in the Oscars in 2000 with His Wife's Diary is an easygoing romp which turns out to be a challenge in more ways than one. The opening attraction at this year's Moscow Festival, it is light, pleasant and evidently attractive to younger audiences, though preferably Russian-speaking ones. Others will likely be put off by the mass of dialogue that, given the exceedingly localised nature of the plot, couldn't take dubbing into another language and is tough to follow in subtitles, even for very fast readers. Shot digitally throughout with a handheld camera on the streets of St Petersburg, the film follows three young protagonists into a triangular romance that finally turns out to be something else altogether. Given the natural charm of the three young actors, all picked from the stage, home prospects look good, but international exposure should be promising, mostly in territories with large Russian communities.

Olya (Irina Pegova), a pretty, busty and vivacious blonde, steps out of a luxurious limousine for a stroll on the streets of St Petersburg. She is soon picked up by a young man of her own age, Alyosha (Pavel Barshak). He starts by flirting in the customary manner but, as soon as he finds a receptive ear, moves into more soulful mode. Olya claims she cannot sit down because of a riding accident, so the relationship progresses by leaps and bounds as the couple brave the heavy traffic of the city and its crowded sidewalks, with the camera chasing them relentlessly in angles varying from medium to extreme close-up.

Olya keeps feeding Alyosha details of her recent past and present, inventing all sorts of fanciful dreams to explain away the inconsistency of her stories, thus keeping the mystery of her identity as intact as possible. As they grow closer to each other, with the girl obviously engineering the pace of the affair, Alyosha suggests calling in his best friend, Petya (Yevgeny Tsyganov), who thinks all girls are bitches, to show him that there is an exception. Once Petya joins them, he almost inevitably falls for the girl as well and declares his intention of taking her for himself.

Uchitel is far too close to his characters ever to attempt a full picture of St Petersburg, but the feeling and the pulse of the big city are there, mostly thanks to remarkably meticulous work on the sound, all of it post-recorded in the studio.

And, at 90 minutes, he just about succeeds in rounding off the proceedings before the film outstays its welcome, which it is in danger of doing once it becomes clear that the trio's 'stroll' is not a prologue to something else, but the essence of the film. The picture stands or falls on the performances, however, and Uchitel has been more than lucky with his three young actors. Playing their first leads, they are utterly unselfconscious, ignore the camera which must have been constantly peering down their throats and have no trouble with the masses of lines they have to handle, helped by a script that seems to grasp all the mood variations of their generation. Pegova, in particular, with her ringing peels of laughter, bright expression and shapely appearance, has everything it takes to go far.

Prod. Co. Film Studio Rock with the Ministry of Culture of the Russian Federation.
Prod. Alexei Uchitel
Int'l Sales Roskinoprokat
Scr. Dunya Smirnova
Cinematography Yuri Klimenko, Pavel Kostomarov,
Ed. Yelena Andreyeva
Prod. Des. Yevgeny Mitta
Main cast Irina Pegova, Pavel Barshak, Yevgeny Tsyganov, Yevgeny Grishkovets