Russian Film Festival 2013: 'Winter Path' review

Despite Putin's 'gay propaganda' law banning the promotion of "non-standard sexual relations", Liubov Lvova and Sergei Taramaev's Winter Path (2013) somehow managed to gain a distribution licence from the Ministry of Culture - though its inconspicuous release and limited festival run tells a different story. Whilst by no means Russia's first gay-themed feature (that honour belongs to Yuriy Pavlov's 1994 effort The Creation of Adam, released just after former leader Boris Yeltsin decriminalised homosexuality), Winter Path does illustrate cinema's instrumental role in challenging contentious sociopolitical statutes.

Lvova and Taramaev's film is an idiosyncratic love story between gay classical singer Erik (Aleksei Frandetti) and a homeless, deeply homophobic and terrifyingly psychotic criminal, Lyokha (Evgeny Tkachuk). Erik is preparing to sing an excerpt from Schubert's Winterreise for an important audition, whilst Lyokha is trying to hide from the law and survive on the inhospitable winter streets of Moscow. The pair's paths cross during an inauspicious bus journey; Erik is quietly listening to music as Lyokha instigates a fight. The following scuffle sees the pair  leave with an item of each other's, eventually reuniting them and beginning a complex, animated relationship. They kiss briefly, but it's already a landmark moment.

The audacious approach of both Lvova and Taramaev deserves commendation, but it's their roles as former actors that bestows the film with its strongest asset. The performances of both Frandetti and Tkachuk in the leading roles clearly benefited from directors who understand the art of acting, with Tkachuk (clearly channelling the anarchic spirit of Johnny Rotten) deservedly winning the best actor award at the Window to Europe Film Festival for his raw and uncompromising performance. Further enhanced by the sublime cinematography of Andrei Zvyagintsev regular Michael Krichman, Winter Path combines the snow-capped beauty of Moscow's streets, with the grandeur of its ornate buildings and the seedy underbelly of lurid clubs that lurks below the surface, to fashion an evocative portrait of the class disparity and social alienation in contemporary Russia.

With fears of rising homophobia evoking an increase in vigilante violence (including chat room entrapment and viral humiliation) this depiction of lives played out in secrecy disrupted by an uneducated ignorant brute is sure to strike a chord with both national and international audiences. Needless to say, music plays a large part in Winter Path transporting the viewer into an intense dramatic journey comprised of bleak emotions and a bitter sweet ambiance of melancholy. In Schubert's cycle of twenty-four songs we learn of emotional heartbreak and the rejection of a society that has so cruelly renounced its protagonist, yet sadly the film's ending remains just as mournful. Elena Gerhardt once said of Schubert's Winterreise, "You have to be haunted by this cycle to be able to sing it," a sentiment clearly understood by both Lvova and Taramaev.

The 7th Russian Film Festival takes place from 7-17 November, 2013. For more of our coverage, simply follow this link.

Patrick Gamble


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