AFP – Anarchic activists plot provocative stunts and hold pitched battles with riot police in the first Russian blockbuster to show the burgeoning protest movement against Vladimir Putin.
Based on a best-selling novel, the film “Soulless” tells a fast-moving tale about a cynical banker who gets tied up with an idealistic young protester with opposing views on business and politics.
“Can’t you see what’s happening in the country and this world, that everything is leading to a totalitarian regime?” she harangues the hero.
“Do you really do this from conviction or is it just a PR stunt?” he asks with a sneer. “What has this regime done to you?”
The activist group clashes with helmeted and shielded riot police, throwing firebombs across barricades on a cobbled street of designer stores.
But the film, which goes on general release on Thursday, is not an independent production from outside the cinema establishment.
It was partly financed by the Kremlin, via the government’s Cinema Fund to promote patriotic films. And its cast includes a popular actress who has since become a lawmaker, Maria Kozhevnikova, for the ruling United Russia party.
The film draws explicit parallels with the radical activist art group Voina (War), one of the most controversial movements to appear in Russia in recent years and closely affiliated with the punk female rock group Pussy Riot.
The activists portrayed in the film use lasers to project a giant dollar sign and obscene symbols onto a skyscraper in Moscow’s business district before fleeing from police.
The real Voina projected a skull and crossbones onto Putin’s White House office with lasers in 2008, when they also painted a giant penis on a lifting bridge in Saint Petersburg outside the local security headquarters.
One of the producers, the highly influential film figure Fyodor Bondarchuk, surprised many by signing an open letter urging the release of the three Pussy Riot members, before they were sentenced to two years in prison for performing in a cathedral.
However, the film was made last year before the group rose to prominence.
“It just reflects some realities of today, and that’s natural for a picture that tries to be some kind of cross-section of society,” director Roman Prygunov said ahead of the premiere. “There’s nothing surprising here.”
The author of the original 2006 bestseller, Sergei Minayev, said the protest theme had been strengthened for the film.
“The film addresses the current day much more than the book, because there are rallies, there are lefties and there are protests. There are all the elements of the present day,” he said.
“It is undoubtedly more of a mirror on the present day.”
A cast of unattractive characters includes cocaine-snorting Max, played by Danila Kozlovsky, who lives in a penthouse and pushes a dubious scheme to invest in an unbuilt luxury complex called “Millionaires’ Paradise.”
He falls for bohemian student activist Yulia, played by Maria Andreyeva, who spots a potential ally.
“He’s going to finance our protests,” she tells the group’s leader, who opposes the idea, dismissing Max as “office plankton” — a corporate drone.
In turn, Max sneers at their stunts.
“You need to stop doing this kids’ stuff and go out on the barricades. Revolutions need martyrs, not idiots,” he jeers.
The portrayal of protesters is largely negative, presenting them as being unclear about their aims and too willing to use violence. In one scene they set fire to a riot policeman’s uniform.
While the film does not make it explicit that the protests are against Putin, in its most surreal moment, Max hallucinates after smoking drugs and sees a vision of Putin flying across the sky in a black superhero outfit.
The audience at the premiere laughed and clapped as “Putin” solemnly tells Max that he flies around at night saving people, then urges him to ditch the drugs.
The episode seemed particularly apposite given that Putin has lately been airborne for real, flying a microlight to guide cranes on their migration route last month in a stunt that was derided by his critics.
So far as topicality is concerned, the film’s producer Pyotr Anurov insists they just got lucky.
“It turned out unexpectedly that all the points that are in the film are happening in our time: the protests on the barricades, Vladimir Putin in the role of Superman flying over the country,” he said in one television interview. “I think it has become even more contemporary than if we had filmed it three or four years ago.”