City Zero

1988, NR, 103 min. Directed by Karen Shakhnazarov. Starring Leonid Filatov, Oleg Basilashvili, Vladimir Menshov, Elena Arjanik.

REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., Dec. 6, 1991

This prize-winning Russian film is an absurdist comedy about a rock'n'roll scandal, mistaken identity and life lived in the shadows of Stalinism and the Twilight Zone. Alexei (Filatov) is a Moscow engineer who arrives at a small town factory for a scheduled appointment only to find no one expecting him. He encounters an outer-office secretary who works in the nude and a stolid factory chief who's never noticed that his firm's chief engineer has been absent for the last eight years. Before returning unsuccessfully to Moscow, Alexei stops for a meal at the hotel restaurant. There, despite his request for no dessert, he is served a cake shaped in a perfect likeness of his own head. The waiter warns Alexei that if he does not eat the cake, the chef will shoot himself. Alexei doesn't and so the chef does. From there, Alexei finds himself at the police station, a witness to the strange suicide. Later, when he again tries to leave the town, he finds no train tickets available and so, takes a cab as far as it will go -- which is to the middle of nowhere, home to a regional museum which houses incongruous oddities like relics from the ancient Roman invasion of the town to the advent of rock'n'roll. While there, a child predicts that Alexei will never leave this town and even prophesies the inscription on Alexei's tombstone. Alexei is truly in City Zero, town with no exit. Again hauled down to the police station, Alexei is weirdly coerced into acknowledging the dead chef as his father. Later a Soviet writer tells Alexei that the chef/his dead father was the town's first rock'n'roller. All manner of political intrigue has been attached to this strange scandal and now a rock'n'roll club is being opened in his honor. Events keep getting more and more surreal until Alexei finds the moment to make his getaway during a moonlit walk to an old oak tree symbolic of political regeneration, discovered to be rotting from within. Escaping through the forest, Alexei makes his way to the water where he sets loose in a rowboat, drifting away with no paddle. City Zero works on many levels. It's successful as a conventional story about mistaken identity. Its absurdism is total and never breaks the spell of believability. Its parable about the state of modern Soviet perestroika is incisive and witty. Its conclusions about the redemptive powers of rock'n'roll are universal.

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City Zero, Karen Shakhnazarov, Leonid Filatov, Oleg Basilashvili, Vladimir Menshov, Elena Arjanik

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