4: berserk reasons to believe in Russian cinema, if not society
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Drop Marina (Marina Vochenko), one of the three main characters in Ilya Khrzhanovsky's 4, into Eli Roth's Hostel, and she'd be a Nameless Evil Whore, instead of a leather trench-coated weary Moscow hooker with a wryly crude sense of humor. It's all a matter of perspective, and Roth's — even if lampooning American xenophobia is his excuse — is boring.
Marina is the kind of woman whose night begins with an escape from a bed tangled with nude bodies, and ends with a trip to a desultory Edward Hopper's–nightmare bar, where she trades bullshit stories with the only other customers, telling pretend cloning agent and real-life piano tuner Vladimir (Yuri Laguta) and phony KGB drone and real-life meat man Oleg (Konstantin Murzenko) that she works as an ad rep for a device that uses ions to make office workers think they're happy.
If Marina's next night began the same way, Khrzhanovsky's movie would occupy a Russia not far from theatrical tradition, though a hell of a lot ruder and slapstick-happy than Chekhov’s. Screenwriter Vladimir Sorokin is notorious for pinpricking patriotic Soviets and gaseous political tyrants, and the Putins don't escape his barroom monologues unscathed. But 4 sets its roving, raving sights on a societal vision far beyond — if connected to — some bleary-eyed urban rumination from the bottom of a vodka bottle. All it takes is one cell phone call informing Marina that her twin sister Zoya has died, and the previously stock-still or slowly creeping camera is soon accompanying her shoulder-side on a nightmarish train ride (another inversion of Roth's Hostel, which 4 predates) and marathon walk through bombed-out, muddy industrial wastelands to Shutilovo. What awaits her there is home sour hell: a mondo bizarro village of raving boozy crones whose sole income stems from the creation of Hans Bellmer–style dolls made up of "chewies" — masticated chunks of moldy bread shaped like noses, dicks, and other body parts.
Turns out Marina's sister died by choking on a chewy — a little fact we learn when Khrzhanovsky isn't watching grannies sprint across the landscape to swig absinthe-green moonshine and wake up the few remaining youngsters for another round of graveside wailing. Marina happens to have two other sisters, also twins, which adds up to a foursome that backs up Vladimir's supposed tall tales about whole towns populated by clones.
Motifs and metaphors run rampant through Sorokin's screenplay, from its many animalist strains — dogs and pigs, bloody or ceramic — and its talk of a post-humanist Russia where cloning is an open secret, to its numerical obsession, which alternately affirms and subverts the titular figure, described as "the number the world rests on" by Vladimir. At times, this symbolism verges on overbearing, but Khrzhanovsky's direction takes Sorokin's playful written ideas into wholly bizarre visual realms. You could say these two are overjoyed to leap off the end of Russia together, and that the event takes place around the time that their heroine starts talking about using grenade launchers as a recreational drug or a psychiatric cure. SFBG
7 and 9:30 p.m. (also 2 and 4:30 p.m., Wed., Sat., and Sun.; no 7 p.m. show on Wed/31)
Roxie Film Center
3117 16th St., SF