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  Leto Russian Rebels
Year: 2018
Director: Kirill Serebrennikov
Stars: Teo Yoo, Irina Starshenbaum, Roman Bilyk, Anton Adasinsky, Liya Akhedzhakova, Yuliya Aug, Filipp Avdeev, Aleksandr Bashirov, Nikita Efremov, Aleksey Fokin, Elena Koreneva, Aleksandr Kuznetsov, Marina Manych, Vasiliy Mikhaylov, Semyon Serzin
Genre: Comedy, Drama, Romance, Historical, MusicBuy from Amazon
Rating:  7 (from 1 vote)
Review: Leningrad in the early nineteen-eighties is not the most liberal of places, and that extends to the music scene, where every band and artist must be officially screened by the Soviet authorities to ensure they are not saying anything too subversive, or indeed too Western. Despite this, the musicians love the music coming out of Britain and the United States, and do their best to get copies of it whenever they can, which often means smuggling it under the noses of those authorities. One band frontman is Mike (Roman Bilyk), who is very popular in the city with his own brand of Russian punk, inspired by The Sex Pistols. He also has a younger singer he has taken under his wing...

Leto, meaning summer, was based on the actual music scene of Leningrad at the time depicted, with references to local characters and movers that only those familiar with the era would recognise; naturally, for an audience outside of Russia, they meant very little. Certainly the music we heard was not what most in the West would term punk, as the band's tunes sound somewhere between Status Quo and Oasis, the sort of chugging rock, albeit often on acoustic guitars, that may be timeless, but doesn't speak to pushing back any musical boundaries, no matter that at the point when the Soviets were at best frowning on these younger folks, that's what it was doing.

Yet there was a horrible irony inherent in the film that may not come across while watching, and it was to do with its chief creative talent, co-writer and director Kirill Serebrennikov. He had based this on the memoirs of the real life woman who was partner to the Mike character, Natalya (Irina Starshenbaum), who had wanted to get her reminiscences down on the page now that both the men in her life, Mike and his protégé Viktor (Teo Yoo), had passed away at relatively young ages. For that reason this was as much a tribute to their rebellious spirit as it was a call, if not to arms, then to a healthy scepticism of any totalitarian regime, and therein lay that aforementioned irony.

Serebrennikov did not get to direct the last few days of shooting on Leto for he had been arrested, on what he and his supporters claimed were trumped up charges. His previous film had been an anti-religious fundamentalist effort The Student, and his theatre work, where he devoted most of his career, had been similarly controversial in Russia. Embraced by the liberal young, he was hated by the country's conservatives and placed under house arrest where he managed to continue working, only at a seriously restricted quality of life. Therefore Leto could be regarded as a metaphorical poke in the eye to those who would oppress him and those like him, particularly when it began to gain international traction and his unfortunate story was becoming better known and more controversial outside of Russia.

Not that Leto is massively political, not to the surface glances at least, it was more that it celebrated freedom of thought - more than that, really, freedom of taste - in a society that clamped down on any dissent, or anything regarded as promoting that dissent. There was a lightness of touch to the film that curiously evoked a cross between two cult movies of yesteryear, Britain's Absolute Beginners and Australia's Dogs in Space, neither of which had been enormous hits at all, but were rediscovered down the decades nonetheless. If Leto felt overindulgent, and to Western eyes a bizarre mishmash of inspirations as the music community back then would take whatever records they could get from abroad, its intermittent bursts of musical numbers restaging old Lou Reed, David Bowie, Marc Bolan or Iggy Pop tunes in a way that was exuberant and, as the resident sceptic tells us, never happened, represented something very positive about the power of music. Despite rambling too often, and a tight ninety minutes could have been edited out of its two hours plus, this was an example of Russian cinema that was being suppressed for no good reason, and recommended for that.

Click here to watch at MUBI.
Reviewer: Graeme Clark


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