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My Friend Ivan Lapshin (Aleksei German, 1986)
Aleksei German’s singular, multithreaded drama My Friend Ivan Lapshin offers a uniquely stylized look at life in Russia as the flaws of Communism were just beginning to show. Set in a provincial Russian village during the 1930s, the film at times recalls the autobiographical work of Terence Davies or Woody Allen’s Radio Days. Like the work of those directors, German’s film filters most experiences through the eyes of a child, although the child/narrator in this particular movie is not present in the majority of the scenes. Instead, German turns his roving camera into a surrogate for the child, usually having it track behind characters or wander curiously throughout the scenes. This gives the film a unique feel, as narrative incident is scarcely privileged over background detail. As with many of our memories, most things here only begin make sense in retrospect, as they are mulled over in the mind. So, while Ivan Lapshin offers a story about a small town police officer who seems precariously perched on the abuse of his power, an investigation of memory itself begins to feel like the film’s prime attraction.
In the opening scene of Ivan Lapshin, a narrator explains that his story is a “declaration of love for the people I lived with as a child, just five minutes’ walk from here and a half a century ago.” As fifty years and five blocks would imply, memory is viewed here as something slippery; almost tangible yet just out of reach. Outright realism often gives way to clearly staged pictorial beauty, reminding us that we are viewing a subjective memory. German switches, almost at random, between scenes shot in color and black and white. A voiceover occasionally intrudes upon the action, to further emphasize the constructedness of all memory. The resulting film, which revels in the past even as it seems soberly aware of the disappointment to come, would likely be probably intensely nostalgic for anyone who lived under Communism.
For the rest of us, My Friend Ivan Lapshin offers a distinctive, yet mildly uninvolving mélange. The indirectness of the film’s point of view makes it somewhat difficult to interpret precisely what it is trying to communicate about Communist Russia. Throughout the movie we are shown the optimism of the people, yet at the same time, whether through the agony caused by a spilt canister of petrol or the way that the characters’ cramped living spaces squelch privacy, we are made aware of the costs of collectivism. Characters talk hopefully about the future but we, like the narrator, know of the disappointment to come. Perhaps the most potent message, though, is found in the brief sequences that return us to the 1980s, from which the story is being told. Little in the physical environment in the fictional town in which the film takes place seems to have been changed in the fifty years since Ivan’s story unfolded, but it’s made quite clear that a way of life has died.