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'Leviathan' And 'Red Army' Deliver A Peek Inside Russia, Now And Then


Over the last three decades, Russia has gone through enormous transformations from a communist police state to a capitalist oligarchy run by Vladimir Putin. Two new movies explore that transformation. Gabe Polsky's documentary "Red Army" takes a look at the Red Army hockey team which was the pride of the Soviet Union until that regime collapsed in 1991. And "Leviathan" tells the fictional story of one man trying to find justice in today's Russia. Our critic-at-large John Powers has seen them both and says they capture the strangeness of contemporary Russian history.

JOHN POWERS, BYLINE: Russia is an enormous lunatic asylum, the writer Tatyana Tolstaya once remarked. There's a heavy padlock on the door, but no walls. You catch a glance of what she means in two new movies that combine to form a fascinating history of that ill-starred country over the last half-century.

The terrific new documentary "Red Army" takes us back to the Soviet Union of the '70s and '80s to tell the story of the Red Army hockey team, probably the greatest hockey squad of all time. We see things through the eyes of its captain, the smart, articulate, hardheaded Slava Fetisov. As a boy, Fetisov was recruited by the Red Army team and molded by its coach, Anatoli Tarasov, a visionary who lifted techniques from the Bolshoi Ballet and taught his players a whole new approach to the game. Tarasov's teams did for hockey what the Brazilians did for soccer. They made it a beautiful game to watch and to play. To this day, Fetisov and his teammates say their lives' happiest moments came on the ice together.

Yet Red Army is about more than just hockey. Filmmaker Gabe Polsky is the American son of Russian immigrants. And without belaboring it, he transforms a sports saga into a novelistic metaphor for the promise and failure of the whole Soviet system. You see, in its harmonious blend of the group and the individual, the Red Army team was perhaps the closest Soviet life ever came to the radiant future promised by socialism. Even as the players formed a collective unit bound in solidarity, they played with such creativity and imagination, they could express themselves on the ice. Small wonder that Fetisov and other commentators still rave about Tarasov's approach.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Hockey is an aggressive game. It's not like tennis, right? So I wouldn't say that the north - the Americans, the Canadians are more aggressive than the Russians. I wouldn't say that. But I do think that there was a different concept of how you play the game. Tarasov, who was an extremely creative man, he saw hockey as this amazingly intricate game of passing the puck.

POWERS: So given Tarasov's genius, what did the control-freak party do? It replaced him with a new coach, Viktor Tikhonov from the KGB. This joyless disciplinarian became a cross between a slave driver and a prison guard, forcing his players to live in barracks 11 months a year. Naturally, they hated him. No longer happy, they yearned to get out of Russia and play in the West, where they could make good money and do what they wanted in their spare time.

Polsky provides "Red Army" with an unexpected ending - unexpected by me anyway. I won't say what happens, but Fetisov's story ends in a post-communist Russia run by another KGB alumnus - Vladimir Putin. His reign is the theme of an even better movie, "Leviathan" by Andrey Zvyagintsev.

Dark, oddly funny and exquisitely shot, it's as good as anything that's come out in the last year. Set in a small city on the Kola Peninsula in northwest Russia, "Leviathan" is a classic story of a man fighting the system. The man's name is Kolya, played by Aleksey Serebryakov. And he's a volatile, not-so-bright mechanic with a frustrated second wife and a disaffected teenage son. Kolya's goes kerflooey when his corrupt mayor uses eminent domain to claim Kolya's house for his own purposes.

An honest man, Kolya seeks justice from the courts, even bringing in his own old army pal Dmitriy, now a hotshot Moscow lawyer.

But this is Putin's money-mad Russia, a land in which all social bonds have snapped. Cops expect Kolya to repair their cars for free, courts are joke, rubberstamping the decisions of the powerful. Politicians are essentially gangsters who'll do anything to get what they want. Orthodox priests work hand in hand with oligarchs. And even friendships can't be trusted.

Kolya's buddy Dmitriy is not the man he thought he was. Then again, Kolya's not the man he wants to be. Like the mayor, he spends a ludicrous amount of his time plastered. I've never seen a movie where so many actors play drunk so convincingly.

Now, like many Russian filmmakers before him, Zvyagintsev's imagination runs to the religious. He gives his story a biblical dimension, hinted at in its title. As Kolya's situation goes from bad to worse, he becomes a modern Job - an ordinary man besieged by the universe. Still, what makes the movie sting is its savage political portrait of a present-day Russian culture that, like "Leviathan," threatens to swallow up everyone in its path. Conjuring a supposedly democratic country that's lost all its values, the film's almost enough to make you sentimental for the bad, old days when Russians at least had a great hockey team to cheer for.

DAVIES: John Powers is film critic for Vogue and vogue.com. Coming up, Ken Tucker reviews the comeback album by the band Sleater-Kinney. This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

John Powers is the pop culture and critic-at-large on NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. He previously served for six years as the film critic.