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The film's story takes place in Moscow in the 1970s. Its plot unfolds around the love triangle between two young men and a girl who study at the same university. They argue, make up, and face their first disappointments and victories. While busy with personal lives and loves, they miss foreseeing that the country in which they were born and live will soon disappear from the map.Written by
The Vanished Empire is a beautiful film about Moscow in 1973 when its hero, Sergei Narbekov, is eighteen. Now, he and his cohorts of those days are fifty-three. Not without significance is the fact that Back to the Future is a big hit at the time. Russian kids are in love with jeans, denim, and bootlegged vinyl of the Stones and, judging by Sergei, college is a place to pick up girls you impress by your skill at wangling outlawed or hard to get stuff, including tickets for shows. Getting drunk and going dancing are also high values. Meanwhile, the USSR is full of itself, even if the kids debate whether it might not be much better elsewhere. The empire is in the ascendant but will soon begin to vanish. The film doesn't push this aspect, but hints at it metaphorically. More often it revels in the details of the period, the boastful propaganda signs, the shiny but rickety Russian cars, young hipsters performing covers of western rock and roll, cluttered apartments, people who read. This is clear-eyed nostalgia. The images are lightly tinted in yellow but razor sharp. The only nostalgia is in how well Shakhnazarov has brought everything back to life. Sergei (played by the impressive newcomer Aleksandr Lyapin) is tall and rangy, modeling his up-to-date fashions with slightly geeky panache. He has a fresh choirboy face, but also an air of cynical cockiness. The fresh face it to attract girls, not signify innocence.
Sergsi's father and grandfather (Armen Dzhigarkhanyan, an Armenian like the director) were archaeologists. His father's missing, his grandfather (who knew Agatha Christie) is amiably tired of life at home, and indulgent toward the boy -- who steals his books and sells them to buy stuff and get drunk with his best mates Stepan (Yegor Baranovsky) and Kostya (Ivan Kupreyenko). It's essential to understand this film to recognize it's about sowing your wild oats. Decades later the grudges of this moment and its misbehavior won't matter one bit. And due to the resilience of youth, they hardly even matter now.
But Sergei's definitely a bad boy, neglecting his studies and, time and again, at key moments in fact, getting drink or stoned and standing up his new girlfriend Lyuda (Lidiya Milyuzina), whose respectable mother he's impressed with is intellectual background. He wants her and loves her but he wants to have fun more. He's unmotivated. When his mother dies of stomach cancer he goes on a trip, a kind of expiation, suggested by his grandfather, to the vast empty site of the ancient City of the Wind, sole remnant of the lost Khorezm civilization his grandfather discovered.
That evocative moment ends the vision of 1973 and there quickly follows a short perspective-establishing coda in the Moscow airport today, where the now much older Sergei, whom we don't see, is recognized and approached by Stopya (Stepan), the friend he rejected in a fight over Ludya. Sergei's a translator now. The grudge is forgotten. All that means nothing now.
There's a parallel, but never at all pushed, of the lost civilization of the East and the lost Soviet empire. The film, handsome to look at, with a vivid look, is superb as to period mise-en-scene, period (and not just of his own youth) being a penchant of Shakhnazarov, whose position as head of Mosfilm has helped him get funding for such productions. The evocations give a sense of the USSR's high point of self-importance but also of how it was stunted. Now everything is gone, changed, and feels "evil," Stopya says in the airport. Shakhnazarov doesn't have to spell out the differences; the contrast is beautifully sketched in.
In retrospect there's a feeling conveyed that the reason Sergei wasn't a good boy is that he saw through the Soviet dream. The Vanished Empire, with its subtly overlapping sense of parallels between lost youth, far off civilization, and crumbled USSR, succeeds in both making eighteen and 1973 clear and vivid and showing that they're gone forever -- that in reliving them for us Sergei is an archaeologist, just like his father and grandfather, after all.
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