Director: Slava Tsukerman.
Starring: F. Murray Abraham (Prof Gross), Valeriy Afanassiev, Mariya Andreeva (Elena), Anatoli Goryachev, Aleksandr Pozharov, Sam Robards (Sasha Greenberg), Jicky Schnee (Jill), Andrei Sergeyev, Ally Sheedy (Helen), Oksana Stashenko (Natasha ).
astro-physicist returns after 17 years of exile to the Soviet Union during the period of "restructuring" that started in 1968
Spoiler Warning: below is a summary of the entire film. There is a curse word and a racial slur in the summary.
Spring, 1992, Moscow, right after the fall of communism. Sasha Greenberg has come back after 17 years of forced separation. Both he and Moscow were in turmoil. He is a man of 50 years of age. He is here officially to attend a conference around his field of interest, astro-physics, but he also wants to reevaluate his life.
Sasha presents the major players in his life at this time. There is his ex-wife Helen who is always threatening to leave him. The beautiful woman standing by the camera is his one-time lover Jill. Then there is another ex-lover named Natascha, a Russian woman. Natasha and Sasha have not seen each other in the 17 years of his exile. Then there is his professor, Dr. Gross. He is another one that Sasha hasn't seen in 17 years. The man has changed little over the years.
Sasha was born in Moscow. He is a recent big drinker. He walked out on the showing of Jill's film and after it was over she asks him why did he walk out on her film? He says he has seen the film so many times before. Standing out in the lobby an old friend recognizes him and they start talking. Then another man who knows about Sasha introduces himself. A third man, named Krinski, shows up to speak with Sasha. Jill wants Sasha to go with her. And a young, pretty brunette stands nearby just looking, not saying anything. Sasha has definitely noticed her.
Flashback. Sasha remembers back to his first day of return in Moscow. Natasha says that the whole gang is enthused about seeing Sasha. He was the first of them to leave and the first of them to return. She invites Sasha to a party in his honor with the whole gang. In the old days, the gang that stayed could not consider him their friend, but now that Perestroika has set in, they can. The old gang gives him a warm reception.
Back to the present. By this time the Russians had elected their first president of Russia, Boris Yeltsin, and they said goodbye to the father of Perestroika, Mikhail Gorbachev. Wherever Sasha goes there is talk good and bad about Gorbachev and Perestroika.
Sasha also talks with his old professor. Dr. Gross had actually come to Russia from America. He had worked on the creation of the atomic bomb. In the age of McCarthyism he emigrated to the Soviet Union. At that time the country had some 20 million of its people imprisoned in labor camps. After being in the Soviet Union, Gross married his housekeeper, who was a illiterate country woman.
Flashback. Sasha remembers back to 1973 when he told Dr. Gross that he had applied for emigration to the United States. The professor told him that they would never see each other again.
Back to the present. Jill and Sasha go to the government agency for motion pictures. One of the officials takes the two people around their studios. At the present time they are shooting ten feature films all at the same time. Jewish actors are popular since they once were forbidden.
Flashback. Sasha thinks back to 1960. He is told by a university administrator that he has not been accepted to the physics-math department. Sasha thinks he was discriminated against because he is a Jew. The administrator tells him that there are so many Jews with fine records that even if he made the school 100% percent Jewish, Sasha would still not make it in. Sasha says he will take the tests (and hopefully show his talents in physics). He grabs a question off the desk of Dr. Gross and says he would like to answer it immediately. Dr. Gross agrees and Sasha launches into the answer.
Sasha's mind also goes back to 1968 when he told Professor Gross that there are no positions available at the university for heads of projects. He adds that there are already too many Jews at the university. He could work with Burkoff, but Sasha objects to the man because he is working on the bomb. He says he just wants to be left alone to think about the structure of the universe. Dr. Gross does not share his moral objections to the bomb. Even if Sasha doesn't work on it, the bomb will be built, he says. Sasha's request to emigrate to Israel is turned down on the grounds that Sasha was involved in classified work.
Back to the present. Dr. Gross gives a nice introduction for their special guest, Sasha. He says Sasha had to leave us in the years of stagnation and now is the first to come back and visit us.
Flashback. 1973. Dr. Gross says in front of the class that this is difficult for him because Greenberg was his student. But treason is treason. He admits he should have exercised more foresight and seen that Greenberg was drifting toward treason. He adds that he hopes he will never again repeat this mistake.
Back to the present. Dr. Gross says that they are all proud of the success of Greenberg.
Flashback. 1973. A student gets up in front of the class at Dr. Gross's invitation to say that Greenberg is a traitor and the place where he should be is not Israel, but prison. One of his friends is asked to come up and say negative things about Sasha Greenberg. Later the friend asks Sasha to excuse him. Sasha sees Natasha in the hallway and thanks her for being the only one not to get up in front of the class and disparage him. She tells him that it's nothing. It's just a ritual and no one really believes it anyway. Natasha invites him home for dinner. They drink to his departure. They sleep together and Natasha says they will never see each other again. Natsha also says that she wants a child and will have one by one of the physicists in her department.
Back to the present. At the party, Sasha sees that young and lovely brunette again. Natasha tells Sasha that the young girl is her daughter. She raised her all by herself like she said she would. Her daughter often asks her to see her father, but Natasha just tells her that she can't because her father lives in America. And now Elena tells everyone that her father is an American. Natasha now introduces Sasha and Jill to her daughter, Elena.
Dr. Gross now offers a toast to another guest they haven't seen for 17 years. And that is Helen.
Flashback. Sasha goes to the observatory and asks a young girl there if she is named Helen Preston. Yes. Helen had asked him to visit her. She says she knows the famous Greenberg: the first physicist refusenik, the freedom fighter. Helen is an American who came over via a student exchange program. At this time two policemen grab Sasha and take him away saying he does not belong here. They refer to Sasha as a spy. Helen shouts out to Sasha that they will be behind him.
Greenberg is released. When he gets back onto the street, Helen is there waiting for him. She says she called many different people to help get Sasha out. And yes, she did call Dr. Gross. They start talking and soon they are together a great deal. They walk around Moscow talking. She goes home with him one day and gets in bed with Sasha.
Carrying a long stem rose, Natasha comes over on the evening of Sasha's birthday. They have dinner alone. Later people start showing up. They have food and music. Helen takes Natasha into the hall ands tells her that she is in love with Sasha, so, she wants everything to be open between them. Natasha tells Helen that they slept together once, but his destiny is not with her. She cannot help him. But, she says, Helen can.
Back to the present. Just like at the old birthday party, his friends sing the same song.
Flashback. Now with Helen, Sasha's request for a marriage certificate is granted. The clerk tells them that the trial period is three months, so at the end of the three months, the couple can return and they will marry them. Sasha says the problem is that Helen's visa expires in two weeks. And, no, the clerk will not speed things up for the couple. Sasha is very discouraged, but Helen tells him that she will contact the U.S. Senate.
Helen returns to Sasha and this time with a Rabbi to marry them. And she returns as a Jewish woman. She converted. Sasha doesn't believe that the Soviet Union would accept a marriage by an American Rabbi. Helen tells him that the American authorities will accept the marriage and so will the American people. Then they will see what the Soviet authorities have to say.
The couple gets a lot of press with headlines such as: "Another Family Broken apart by Russian Government"; "Woman Asks for Return of Husband"; "Ten Senators Appeal to Soviet Government to Help Reunite Greenbergs"; "Give Helen Greenberg Back Her Husband". The Soviet government gives in.
Fall 1975. Sasha has to go through customs and the two women give him a hard time.
Returning to the Soviet Union. A clerk tells Sasha that he bets he can hardly wait to see his friends. He adds that things have changed, but don't believe "them", their lives are still pretty hard.
New York. Sasha now lives with Helen in New York City. And he learns that Helen is pregnant.
Helen is having big problems with baby sitters for her baby, so she says she is going to have to quit her job and stay home with her child.
Sasha's son is now a little boy. Sasha is having a hard time finding a different position at a university with the equipment where he can continue working on his model of the structure of the universe. Sasha does have a job offer, but it is to work for the military. And he will earn triple the amount he is presently earning. Helen says she has no objections.
Helen complains of being exhausted by all the work she has at home.
Now Helen says she hates Sasha. She complains that he sacrificed her life to work on his model. And now he gets a phone call to participate in a film about science. And it's here that he meets Jill. She asks him about his wife and Sasha says he isn't sure whether she really is his wife. He asks Jill to have dinner with him.
1991. Jill and Sasha are having coffee at an outdoor cafe. She asks him if he is married or not? Sasha explains that in the past two years, Helen has left for France four times and come back three times. She left because she says Sasha ruined her career, but kept coming back because she really must love him. Jill calls him a male chauvinist, but Sasha says that's just bull shit. He says she has always worked and is still working now.
Jill and Sasha have sex. (brief nudity) Helen walks in on the couple , catching them in the act. Jill just calmly introduces herself to Helen. They all sit at the dining room table. Helen complains that in their 18 years together Sasha has never thanked her for anything she has done. Sashahas a really lame excuse and reveals himself as still very much under the old ideas of male-female roles.
Return to the present. At the party, Natasha steals Sasha away from Dr. Gross. She takes Sasha for a walk and then a taxi drive around Moscow. She takes him to see her apartment. Prominently displayed there art two large photographs: one of her daughter and one of Sasha. Sasha asks her if Elena is his daughter? Natasha says it doesn't make any difference, but Sasha believes it does. Natasha says she's not going to tell him. She slugs down a small glass of vodka and then kisses Sasha passionately on the mouth. Sasha starts to object, but she says don't say anything, because she has already seen his harem of women. They have sex. (Not shown.) Afterwards, she says she is going to take Sasha to her parents' house. Elena, suddenly shows ups and knocks on the bedroom door. Natasha tells her not to come in because she is not alone. She urges her daughter to go to sleep. Elena is not too happy about her mother not being alone.
Sasha is amazed at possibly having a Elena as a daughter. When he left for America, she didn't even exist, but now she's a young woman. Her existence has started changing Sasha's way of looking at the world. Sasha tries to sneak out of the apartment when Natasha falls asleep. Elena is sleeping on the couch and the noise wakes her up as Sasha opens and closes the door. She quickly gets dressed and chases after Sasha. She catches up with him and says she wants to talk with him. She complains about there being "no life" in Moscow. They keep walking and talking until it is daylight. Elena now asks him if he thinks she is his daughter? He says he doesn't know and wants to know what she thinks. She doesn't know either, but she doesn't really think he is, because she is 16 years old now and he left six months before her mother got pregnant with her. Then again, she says, her mother could have forged the papers.
Elena says that she hates her mother. "She's an old, lying bitch." Sasha describes Natasha as a lovely, talented woman who brought up a daughter all by herself, while mataining her career. Of course, Elena doesn't agree. Sasha says she's cruel, but Elena says Sasha is cruel, because if he knew her mother just a little bit, Sasha wouldn't describe her as a saint.
Elena now wants to tell Sasha about her life. She grew up living under the portrait of a man that she never met. This person was said to be a hero and the first to be a refusenik, And the man was a genius. She asks Sasha to kiss her, so he kisses her on her forehead. She says: "Not like that. For real." She kisses him on the mouth. A taxi comes to pick her up. She says the next taxi will be for him. "See you tomorrow."
When Sasha returns to his hotel, Jill is waiting for him. She asks him what he really wants right now? He says he would like to see the house where he grew up. So they go over to an apartment complex. He says he feels like he is in a dream. He can't find the window of his apartment. A man comes up to Sasha and tells him that the authorities bricked up the window. They were even going to tear down the entire building, but they changed their minds. This stuns Sasha.
Flashback. 1952. A bunch of bullies are picking on Sasha.
Return to the present. Sasha recognizes the man as one of his bullies. The man says he knows him. When they were little they used to fight.
Flashback. Sasha remembers being forced by the man to say anti-Semitic things about himself, such as: "I'm a dirty kike." He also had to say things like: "I'm begging you to beat the shit out of me."
The man says they used to be Young Pioneers taking the oath under a portrait of Stalin and a bust of Lenin.
Back to the present. The man says he is the only one left of the old tenants. The people were moved out to new developments. He adds that it was only through his efforts that they saved the building. Sasha says the man must be pretty powerful if he can save a building. The fellow says he is a writer and famous in a matter of speaking. He invites Sasha and Jill into his apartment, but Jill says they have to be at a church to meet someone in half an hour. The fellow asks if he can come with them.
The three go to a rock and roll performance in the old church. They meet with one of the men (named Krinski) that met Sasha at the astro-physics conference. He says that the fellow they are with is his worst enemy, but anything bad he writes about their musical group in his magazine is just free publicity for them. The editor keeps talking and reveals himself as pretty much a reactionary. And he appears a bit anti-Semitic. Krinski says at the Nuremburg Trials they tried men who had views such as the editor has.
When they finish talking, Krinski takes Jill and Sasha up to see some film being edited. The female editor comments on the raw footage. Every year Soviet factories release into the air over 60 million tons of pollutants. And in 68 industrial centers, the safe limit on pollution is surpassed by 100 times that amount. Over 175 million people live in areas that are ecologically unsafe. Every year they dump over 30 tons of mercury into the Black Sea. The Sea is dying. Sasha wonders how long the planet can go on with this amount of mistreatment.
Flashback. While having sex, Jill asks Sasha to marry her. (Brief nudity.) He tells her no, because he has already been through something like this and it scares the hell out of him. He goes on to say that the traditional family has crumbled and there's nothing to replace it. Jill is not happy.
Sasha thinks about when he read his paper before the astro-physics conference. He first says a few things about the changes in science over time. He says that in his youth the scientists were the great heroes of the day. And yet, looking back in time, they were very naive. They thought everything could be solved if they could just educate people properly. But now, says Sasha, it's time to get to business and he goes to the blackboard and starts writing.
Krinski invites Natasha over for a performance of one of his groups. He then virtually invites himself and his friends to the gathering Natasha's parents are throwing for Sasha.
After the presentation at the conference, Helen says he was just trying to impress the young girl. Sasha complains that the statement was basically a low blow. If she is not going to be helpful, then why did she even talk to him after the conference presentation? Helen says she is not his mother; in fact, she's not even his wife.
Sasha's little circle of family and friends go with Krinski in two carriages, one of which carries gypsies that sing and play musical instruments on the way to their destination. They pass a long line of people waiting to get in to a government office. Some grandmothers are fighting with each other. Krinski says that the pensions of these women per month could not buy a single dinner at the fancier restaurants that Sasha and his friends have been going to. Sasha feels bad for the women.. When it is night the traveling party goes to dinner. Some of the more conservative attendees say that at least under Stalin there was order. Sasha's bully says that as soon as the liberals cause Russia to hit rock bottom, the conservatives like himself will take over and make things right.
Later the group dances. Sasha dances with Natasha; Dr. Gross dances with Elena; and Krinski with Jill. Elena asks Dr. Gross why are things so awful and people so mean? He tells her that happiness is not to be found in Moscow or New York, but inside herself. Elena tells everyone that Natasha is going to take Sasha to see an old church. Krinki says they will all go together.
The next day virtually the whole group goes to the old church. Sasha speaks to Dr. Gross about his mid-life crisis and says he thinks the same thing is happening to Russia and America, and to the whole human race. He says he doesn't under this world or this life. Sasha feels like his life is ending. They both compare these life crises as phases of perestroika. Dr. Gross now drops a bomb on Sasha. The professor says that Elena is in fact his daughter. Sasha replies: "My loss. Your luck."
They go into the church and Elena grabs Sasha and says she wants to show him a corner of the church that not even her mother knows about. They go up and through a narrow passageway to the belfry. She often comes up here to be alone. She likes to be alone. Elena asks him if he has found happiness? He says that maybe it's his own fault. Maybe he doesn't have it in him. He asks Elena: "How can I be happy when the world's gone mad and everything around me is collapsing?" She suggests that the problem is that people are not listening to one another. Elena starts ringing a bell and tells Sasha to ring the other bell. He joins in with Elena to make sure the world is listening.
Interesting movie contrasting the great social, political and economic changes in Russia known as perestroika with the middle-life crisis within a man exiled from the Soviet Union who was able to return during perestroika. Sasha is searching for himself, but doesn't really have much luck. All the changes that have happened in Russia (and to a lesser extent in the U.S.A.) just further confuses Sasha. His America has changed and his Russia has changed. What is a man to do now that his youth is definitely gone and their are no firm societal guidelilnes? Russia and Sasha are similar in that they respect the internal conflicts in the nation and within Sasha. In Russia many people like the changes, but others are deeply upset by the changes and some of them even say nice things about the evil Stalin. This social uncertainty is paralleled by the internal uncertainty in Sasha.
Good film, but I wish there was a bit more explanation of what some of the big changes have meant to the Russian people? Sasha does present some of the more obvious differences, such as in his day in Russia people would readily be executed for rather slight offenses. I wanted to see some of the more subtle changes in the Russians. But I shouldn't look a gift horse in the mouth. The film deals with a serious subject that has not been well covered in film and I'm grateful for that.
Oh, Sasha many times was boring in the questions he was asking himself? There were many more very short "back to the present" intervals in the film that I did not bother with because I thought they were of little or no importance to the film. The technique is good, but the quick switches didn't provide much new information. I didn't care much for the arrogant Dr. Gross. He was a bit much to take.
Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D.
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