Roots 

[Бедные родственники]  

Russia and France, 2005
Color, 104 minutes
Russian with English subtitles

Director: Pavel Lungin

Screenplay: Gennadii Ostrovskii

Cinematography: Mikhail Krichman

Art Director: Sergei Bzhestovskii

Cast: Konstantin Khabenskii, Sergei Garmash, Leonid Kanevskii, Daniil Spivakovskii, Marina Golub, Natal'ia Koliakanova, Esther Gorinthin, Otto Tausig, Gregoire Leprince-Ringuet

Producers: Pavel Lungin, Catherine Dussart, Ol'ga Vasil'eva

Production: SDR, Arte France Cinema, Oniks 

Known as "Poor Relatives" (Bednye rodstvenniki) in the original Russian, Lungin's Roots is an ambitiously complex story that plays on the concepts of "poor" and "relative" in various ways.  The central figure is Eduard, a grifter from a small, Russian-speaking Ukrainian town who has concocted a plan to bilk rich Jewish foreigners by arranging "heritage" trips back to their purported homeland, fled by their families during the War.  Eduard invents familial bonds between the émigrés and the locals, some of whom he pays off to participate in the ruse, and some of whom he cons into believing that the visitors really are their long-lost kin.  He also makes a deal with the local strongman temporarily to change the name of the town from Golotvin to Golutvin (the name of an actual, nearby town razed during the Nazi occupation, from which the foreigners' families came).  As the con progresses beyond his control, Eduard and the other characters reveal and discover facets of their identities that were previously hidden, some for 65 years.

Eduard's pedigree among the famous conmen of Russian literary history (Gogol's Chichikov, Il'f and Petrov's Ostap Bender) is ironically established by his spontaneous recitation at one point of Aleksandr Blok's poem "The Scythians."  The theme of that poem—the dormant but ever-present destructive power of the Eastern element of the Russian soul—is also significant, in light of the film's ethnic themes.  One of the émigrés has come to bury his mother in the town cemetery, the caretaker of which Eduard has paid to disguise it as a Jewish cemetery.  Another quickly earns the enmity of his newly-found "nephew," who lectures him on the difference between "Jews" and "Yids," perhaps the film's most direct engagement with the Soviet and post-Soviet "Jewish question." 

The large cast includes two of the most prolific and visible actors in Russia today, Konstantin Khabenskii and Sergei Garmash, as well as Esther Gorinthin, an adorable nonagenarian polyglot who began her film career in 1999, at the age of 85, and is best known for her role in Julie Bertucelli's film Since Otar Left (2003), and Daniil Spivakovskii, who played the title role in Valerii Todorovskii's My Stepbrother Frankenstein (2004). 
 

Pavel Lungin

Pavel Lungin was born in Moscow in 1949. After studying math and linguistics at Moscow State University, he turned to film in 1976. A second-generation screenwriter, Lungin had scripted a half-dozen Soviet films by the time he began directing at age 40. He enjoyed immediate success, winning the Best Director prize at the 1990 Cannes Film Festival for Taxi Blues. Lungin has directed five feature films since his debut, including The Wedding (2000), which was a competition film at Cannes, and Tycoon, a nominee for best screenplay at the 16th annual Nika Awards.  Roots won several prizes at the 2005 Kinotavr Film Festival in Sochi, including best picture and best actor (Khabenskii).  His most recent project is a television mini-series based on Nikolai Gogol's Dead Souls, with a script co-written by Iurii Arabov, screenwriter for most of Aleksandr Sokurov's films. 
 

Filmography

1990  Taxi Blues
1992  Luna Park
1996  Line of Life
2000  The Wedding
2002  Tycoon | KinoKultura review
2005  Roots | KinoKultura review
2005  The Case of the Dead Souls (TV mini-series)

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