Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Mon Sep 21, 2009 2:55 pm 
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Collaged poetic portrait of the exiled poet Joseph Brodsky

This film by 70-year-old Khrzharnovsky, an award-winning animator and documentary filmmaker, his feature debut, is an imaginative exploration of the life of exiled Russian Jewish poet and Nobel laureate Joseph Brodsky that wonderfully weaves actual footage and restagings, artfully distressed film in the manner of Guy Madden, color and black and white, animation, dramatized scenes and scenery, childhood, adulthood, and one sentimental but very touching scene between Brodsky and his parents after all have died, sitting in the cramped Soviet era room and a half where Joseph spent his youth and his parents lived out their days. We see the mature Brodsky as an exile in America, dreaming of returning to his homeland (he never actually did). It's all woven together with readings of Brodsky's poetry and prose, recollections of his development, and meditations on the journey back he took only in his imagination.

Some of the early scenes of Brodsky trying to get to second base with girls and sampling jeans and vinyl records are reminiscent of Karen Shakhnazarov's recent film of a Sixties Moscow youth, The Vanished Empire (2008), except that here, with the setting moved to Leningrad, the sequences are more stylized. Before that we see Brodsky as a little boy coddled by parents and exploring his immediate surroundings. Throughout, Alisa Freyndlih and Sergei Yursky are excellent as Brodsky's mother and father.

And as Brodsky grows up he becomes a confident intellectual, declaring his to be the last generation that will truly value culture and extolling the virtues of cigarettes as a wellspring of poetic creativity. He is outspokenly political, and this leads to exile to a remote village. A letter asks for a care package from home of mustard, cheese, and other delicacies, but says that he is fine. After he has been expelled from Russia and become a professor in he USA, first at the University of Michigan, later at colleges on the East Coast, he's seen drinking and partying, and recurrently calling his parents, who in turn are seen struggling with the bureaucracy to get permission to leave Russia to visit him; they never could. There's nothing about Brodsky's American family life. Focus is on his relationship with Russia.

Though a bit long at 130 minutes, Room and a Half is an enchanting work of the imagination and remarkable for its blending of different visual and filming styles and engaging and beautiful animated sequences, often making use of blackbirds and cats. As a portrait of Brodsky, despite the rich actual Brodsky material, it's not to be taken literally, and hence stands more as a study of the theme of the artist in exile. This provides rich material that one would certainly love to show students if one were teaching a course in Brodksy's writing. (He came to the US in 1972 and was naturalize in 1977; died in 1996 at the age of 55.)

The full title is Room and a Half, or a Sentimental Journey to the Homeland; the Russian title, transliterated, is Poltory komnaty ili sentimentalnoe puteshestvie na rodinu .

Shown as an official selection of the New York Film Festival.

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