Zerograd (Zero City) Movie Review: Unique and Surreal

Seeing so many twisted tales of desperation where characters are forced into situations beyond their control, I do get that some of them don’t exactly work and are dated. However, I have to look to director Karen Shakhnazarov’s 1988 darkly potent Zerograd (Zero City) as one of the better ones and perhaps a new favorite discovery, because its not just a quietly funny parody of Russia, but also a sadly relevant take of a country disappearing right before our eyes.

Leonid Filatov (in a terrifically somber performance) as Varakin, an Everyman who arrives in a remote town to become its temporary engineer. Unable to cope with its bizarre environment, he tries to leave but is unable to. His predicament grows dire as he finds himself inadvertently involved in the apparent suicide (or murder?) of local chef Nikolaev, who may or may not be his long-lost father. The deeper he gets into this chaos, the more trapped he becomes. In this case, he is unable to leave but also unable to stay.

This is a very and delightfully weird film, full of eccentric characters, such as a completely nude secretary, frozen statues that look like real people (maybe they are) especially because you can clearly seem them moving, a crazed dictator who tries to kill himself but has a malfunctioning gun, and the chef himself, Nikolaev, who says he will off himself if Varakin doesn’t take a bite of his cake (made to look like him, which the most iconic image in the film and has since been included on nearly all of its posters.

Filatov (who sadly died in 2003) is wonderful. His face provides so many emotions, without him having to say one word. His situation in the film gets heartbreaking (and sinisterly hilarious) as tries to leave but is unable to. He repeatedly says, “I have to get back to Moscow” but is greeted with nonchalance and misunderstanding. It’s like he becomes a hero of the town, to his own dismay. You are with him every step of the way and feel just as claustrophobic as he does, until the film’s final image, where he finds a boat and eventually escapes (or does he?).

Of course, being an art house satire, its not going to be for everyone. Most people will not get its messages about nonconformity and indifference, but maybe they will get the characters’ reasons for that. They could be reacting that way to save face and claim their remaining sanity, or maybe there’s something much more eerie going on. Whatever you think it might be, you’re still going to get a unique and surreal film, one that’s way ahead of its time, even for today.

I didn’t receive the Blu-ray, but it does have a new video interview with director/co-writer Shakhnazarov moderated by Dennis Bartok and a new commentary with film journalist Samm Deighan. There’s also a new essay by filmmaker, writer, punk musician, and genre expert Chris D.

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