Perestroika Movie Review
Sasha (Sam Robards) has arrived here to address a conference on the structure of the universe -- his life-long obsession. The occasion reunites him with his testy old mentor, Professor Gross (F. Murray Abraham), and with Natasha (Oksana Stashenko), a former colleague and ex-lover who stirs up suspicions that Sasha may have fathered her teenage daughter before he left the country in the mid-'70s. The situation further compounds Sasha's midlife crisis: His marriage to Helen (Ally Sheedy), an American physicist, has fallen apart, and he's in the midst of a dead-end affair with another American, Jill (Jicky Schnee), a filmmaker accompanying him so she can gather newly declassified footage about the country's pollution crisis for her own environmental documentary.
Perestroika is shaped not so much by a plot as by a series of encounters, observations, memories, and contemplations all surrounding Sasha's visit to his homeland. His journey covers several decades' worth of remembrances, stretching from the Iron Curtain era, when anti-Semitism marked his student days and he defected to the West, to his evolving dynamics with Natasha, Helen, and Jill, and the collision of his existential skepticism with Gross's sage obstinacy.
If there's a plotline, it's largely to do with Sasha's reconciliation with Natasha, and the bond he begins to build with her (and possibly his) daughter, Elena (Maria Andreyeva). Sasha and Elena may be decades apart in age, but both harbor dreams of escape -- an escape from the false freedom of perestroika to a truer one, in which the corruption of human nature is finally defied, and in which individual, nation, world, universe, all are unified in a dream of mutual co-existence.
What surprises off the bat about Perestroika is the intelligence of its characters. They may be doubtful and dysfunctional, but they're all genuine and articulate about their grief. Tsukerman's screenplay too heavily relies on voiceover narration to put across his themes, and his dialogue is often too stilted to feel natural. But it's still a pleasure to be in the company of these oddly impassioned individuals. That this cast is uniformly excellent also compensates for the screenplay's defects, especially Robards and Abraham. Abraham, in particular, steals the show as the sly, brilliant Gross, dropping references to Diogenes, Shakespeare, St. Augustine, and Einstein in witty asides that test Sasha's personal and political resolve and make us grateful for a film that doesn't dumb itself down to win its audience.
Most striking about Perestroika, though, is its hard-to-categorize style. Tsukerman smashes together a smorgasbord of video and archival Soviet footage; on-location sequences with scenes using experimental rear projection and false perspectives; digitally processed imagery; sequences intercutting the low-budget psychedelic present-time with pristine sepias of the past, and so on, in a delirious approximation of Sasha's emotional and psychological life. At its best, Peristroika is not unlike Lars von Trier's subliminal, multimedia thriller Zentropa, and the latter-day Welles of The Trial and Mr. Arkadin, in that in experiencing it, we feel we're watching not a real narrative but a dream-story unfolding. That's a quality rarely achieved, and which makes Perestroika one of the year's strangest and most compelling narratives.