The Babushkas of Chernobyl


Girls just wanna have fun.

Girls just wanna have fun.

(2015) Documentary (Chicken and Egg) Valentyna Ivanivna, Vita Polyakova, Maria Shovkota, Hanna Zavoratya, Mary Mycio, Olga Mikolaivna. Directed by Anne Bogart and Holly Morris

Florida Film Festival 2016

There are desirable places to live in the world – California, the Rhone Valley, Hawaii and so on – but there are some places in the world where I think people would choose not to live; the middle of the Gobi Desert, for example. Death Valley would be another. However, I think at the top of that dubious list would be the exclusion zone around Chernobyl.

When Reactor #4 exploded at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in the Ukraine on April 26, 1986 it created an area contaminated by radiation containing roughly 1,000 square miles. Those that lived in the rural villages in the surrounding area along with the plant workers whose homes were in the nearby town of Pripyat were forcibly evacuated, often just with the clothes on their backs.

For some, living away from where they’d lived all their lives was as awful a fate as dying of radiation poisoning. Some of the villagers therefore snuck back into the exclusion zone and resumed their lives. Most of them women and nearly all of them elderly, they continue to live in the zone which although not officially supported by the Ukraine is unofficially tolerated; as one aid worker says, they are far more likely to die of old age before the radiation kills them.

Now at this point I should mention that I’m half-Ukrainian on my mother’s side; one of the most important people in my life as a young boy was my maternal grandmother, whom I called Baba. She is someone I continue to regard fondly even now. These ladies – Hanna, Maria and Valentyna are the three focused on here – remind me very much of her, so do take this review with that in mind.

Bogart and Morris follow these ladies through their daily lives, through visits by government scientists researching the radiation in the soil, the water and in the ladies themselves through visits with one another, to receiving their government pensions – which in typical government fashion are late. I am startled to see how verdant the exclusion zone is; while the forests closest to the plant are barren, life seems to be thriving in the outlying area. The babushkas live on the food they grow and the livestock they raise, supplemented by what they can find in the forest which can include things like nuts, berries and mushrooms. They also occasionally go fishing in the local rivers.

They also get visits from other government officials, including one young woman who reluctantly accepts the offer of food and tries to eat as little as possible; she knows turning the ladies down outright would be insulting to them. They treat her with affection, like a granddaughter.

There are other survivors as well, some who continue to live outside of the exclusion zone, all of whom ruefully miss their old lives in their old village. It is pointed out that statistically, the babushkas living in the exclusion zone are outliving those of a similar age who are living outside of it, which only speaks to the powerful influence of living in comforting surroundings.

The stories that these ladies and the other interviewees are riveting; they have lived hard lives even before the accident. The privations of the Second World War and the German invasion, and even worse under Stalin’s policy of forced starvation are recalled with vivid detail. Many of them had husbands who weren’t exactly prizes; they talk ruefully of alcoholism and even beatings. This was part of life for a young Ukrainian wife back in the day.

We also get to meet a group of videogamers from Kiev who, inspired by the game S.T.A.L.K.E.R. which is set at Chernobyl, illegally trespass into the exclusion zone and try to penetrate as far as possible into the zone, making it all the way to Pripyat. They joke around, but what they are doing is unbelievably dangerous. Kids, don’t try that at home – or anywhere else.

It is the story of the explosion itself and the ensuing aftermath that really makes one pause; it is heartbreaking to hear about the chaos and the tears that occurred as their lives were irrevocably changed. The explosion was loud enough to wake most of them, and while they were far enough away from the plant that they didn’t see the actual disaster itself nor suffer the fatal effects of exposure, their tales are chilling enough.

The movie was filmed around Easter, a very big holiday in the Russian Orthodox Church, and we are allowed to tag along as the ladies are taken by bus to worship at midnight mass. This was one of the most moving moments in the film as you can plainly see that the women are affected by the ceremony which is in itself beautiful in the candlelight.

Clearly, the filmmakers have much affection for the babushkas and there is a wistful air to the whole film. These are old women used to hard work and self-sufficiency. Watching them go about their daily routines makes one realize that we have it easy here. While it is delightful to watch them on their cell phones – reception is as you might imagine rather dicey in the exclusion zone – they represent a way of life that is fast disappearing. That these are amazing ladies goes without question, but they are also in a sense very ordinary. I doubt they see themselves as particularly special; they are just doing what they’ve always done, despite the risks. It’s their very ordinariness that makes them special in my eyes; they are just like my Baba and of course, who doesn’t love their grandmother?

REASONS TO GO: Powerful images and scenes. Compelling subjects. Amazing stories about the explosion and aftermath.
REASONS TO STAY: May not appeal to all filmgoers.
FAMILY VALUES: Some thematic material may be a little intense.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The filmmakers were required to rotate in and out of the hot zone in order to minimize their exposure to the radiation.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/16/16: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Russian Woodpecker
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT: Norman Lear: Another Version of You

The Salt of Life (Gianni e la donne)


The Salt of Life

Gianni di Gregorio points at what he wants most in life.

(2011) Comedy (Zeitgeist) Gianni di Gregorio, Valeria De Franciscis Bendoni, Alfonso Santagata, Elisabetta Piccolomini, Valeria Cavalli, Aylin Prandi, Kristina Cepraga, Michelangelo Ciminale, Teresa di Gregorio, Lilia Silvi, Gabriella Sborgi, Laura Squizzato, Silvia Squizzato. Directed by Gianni di Gregorio

 

When a certain age is reached, people tend to become invisible to the opposite sex – transparent, as one character ruefully comments in this Italian comedy. The tendency is for us to fight against this marginalization and assert our own sexual potency, particularly in the male of the species.

Gianni di Gregorio, who co-wrote and directed this as well as starred in it, has reached that age. He is a pleasant, willing sort who was forced, unwilling, into retirement years ago (although for what reason it is never said). His laid-back, low-key and giving nature are constantly taken advantage of by the women in his life, particularly his nonagenarian mother (Bendoni) who fritters away her life savings while her son scrapes by. She constantly calls her son to come visit her to basically wait on her hand and foot, while her caregiver Kristina (Cepraga) is given designer dresses and jewelry to wear.

Gianni’s wife (Piccolomini) is cordial towards him, although she does belittle him for having nothing to do. Her earnings and Gianni’s pension are barely enough to make ends meet. Still, they have a pretty comfortable lifestyle, although the two of them sleep in separate bedrooms and essentially lead separate lives. With them lives their daughter (Teresa de Gregorio), who is stressed with university exams, and her slacker boyfriend Michi (Ciminale) who seems to spend more time with Gianni than with his girlfriend.

Rome has always been filled with attractive women and Gianni is surrounded by them – besides Kristina there’s Gianni’s ex-girlfriend Valeria (Cavalli) who is newly available and seems to adore him, his neighbor Aylin (Prandi) who professes to be madly in love with him but that seems to be mainly because he is willing to walk her St. Bernard for her and run errands for her while she sleeps off a hangover from yet another night of partying. None of them seem to have much more than a playful flirtation in mind for him and he wonders if he missed out on the romance in life. This spirals him into a mild depression.

Gianni’s best friend and lawyer (Santagata) notices Gianni’s melancholy and advises him to take on a mistress. Gianni warms to the idea – even some of the most decrepit men in his neighborhood have one – and seems to fear the idea of becoming the lonely old man who walks his dog in a Trastevere park every day. But how to go about it?

This is not really a sequel to di Gregorio’s last film, Mid-August Lunch (which I saw at the 2010 Florida Film Festival and it wound up on my list of Ten Best Films that year) so much as it is a continuation. There are several of the same characters in that movie including Santagata and Gianni’s mom. It carries with it the same inner charm and sweetness that the first movie carried.

As in that movie, Gianni is something of a pushover, blandly murmuring “certainly, certainly” when asked to do something by the various women in the movie. Yet when he decides to do something it become woefully obvious he doesn’t have game by modern standards. He is courtly and charming but lacks passion and confidence, something most women look for. He is a hand kisser in an age of ass grabbers. He is so inept at wooing the women around him that one wonders how he got married and managed to sire a daughter.

Gianni has that woeful hangdog look, and his melancholy is palpable throughout the film. He  is aware of the bags under his eyes and although not an un-handsome man, he is no Giancarlo Giannini. In many ways, he is the man most women like to affectionately complain about – somewhat befuddled, a little inept and lost without the women in his life.

The sun-dappled streets of Trastevere are charming and alluring in their own way. Even though Gianni isn’t in the best of financial shape, he still leads an enviable lifestyle; eating well, drinking often and not having to go to work every day. Still, there’s something missing for him, something that leads him to stray onto trails he doesn’t know and isn’t sure where they’re going to lead him.

It seems odd to root for someone to cheat on their wives but it is important to remember that mistresses occupy a different place in Italian culture than in our own. Not that it’s accepted so much as politely ignored. Here, it’s a major no-no so American audiences might have trouble getting behind Gianni’s quest.

Still, this is delightful, laid-back, charming and laugh-out-loud funny. Di Gregorio makes the difficult art of comedy seem effortless, and that’s the mark of a real master. In a landscape littered by raunchy comedies by Judd Apatow and his wanna-bes, this is a refreshing change. Not that I don’t enjoy Apatow’s films or raunchy comedies in general but it’s nice to have variety and isn’t that the salt of life?

REASONS TO GO: Gentle and charming.  Has a sweet sexiness that American films rarely capture.

REASONS TO STAY: Gianni lacks inertia. Hard to root for a guy trying to cheat on his wife.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some sexual innuendo and a few bad words scattered here and there.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The actress playing Gianni’s daughter is in fact his real life daughter.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/24/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 82% positive reviews. Metacritic: 65/100. The reviews are solid.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Mid-August Lunch

ROME LOVERS: This movie is set in Rome’s Trastevere neighborhood and is the Rome not of tourists but the city where Romans actually live. One gets a real sense of the lifestyle of those who live there.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

NEXT: The Raid: Redemption

Red (2010)


Red

Here's the real reason you want to see the movie.

(Summit) Bruce Willis, Morgan Freeman, John Malkovich, Helen Mirren, Karl Urban, Mary-Louise Parker, Richard Dreyfuss, Brian Cox, Julian McMahon, Rebecca Pidgeon, Ernest Borgnine, James Remar, Emily Kuroda, Audrey Wasilewski. Directed by Robert Schwentke

It’s no secret that our society is extremely youth-oriented. Our elderly we have a tendency to marginalize and cast aside like a used DVD player when the Blu-Ray came out. However, we do so at the potential cost of underestimating the contributions that can still be made by senior citizens.

Frank Moses (Willis) is a retiree living in a small apartment in Cleveland. His life is a quiet one, the highlight of his day being regular phone conversations with Sarah Ross (Parker), a caseworker for the government pension plan who supplies Frank with a monthly check. It’s obvious Frank is attracted to her and she to him; she continues to talk about it while casting nervous glances around to avoid being detected by a disapproving supervisor. They make plans to meet in her home town of Kansas City.

Not long after that he shows up in her apartment, waiting for her there when she comes home after yet another epic fail of a date, babbling wildly about assassins that are after him and that they’re now after her because she’s been talking to him. When she doesn’t believe him, he duct tapes her mouth shut and kidnaps her, driving her to New Orleans. He stashes her in a hotel while he goes to visit Joe Matheson (Freeman), who lives in a rest home where he mainly ogles the nurses, and tries to find a dignified way to die from Stage Four liver cancer. They figure out that someone within the CIA has put a hit out on Frank, but nobody can really figure out why.

Neither can Cooper (Urban), a ramrod-straight CIA operative who has been tasked with taking out Frank. His boss (Pidgeon) sends him down to the archives where Henry the Records Keeper (Borgnine) holds sway. Cooper discovers the “analyst” he’s been told to take out is in reality an ex-field agent who was one of the best the CIA ever had, the kind of guy who toppled governments all by his lonesome once upon a time. Cooper, a family man, is none too pleased by this turn of events but he is, after all, a Company man.

In fact, there’s a conspiracy that goes back to a black ops mission in Guatemala in the 80s and a political situation that is a little more present-day. Frank assembles his old team including Joe, Marvin (Malkovich), a twitchy sort who developed extreme paranoia after being injected with LSD every day back in the 60s, and Victoria (Mirren), a deadly assassin who can best be described as Martha Stewart with a machine gun. There’s also Sarah, who’s now aboard with the program, and Ivan (Cox), an ex-KGB agent who once had a thing for Victoria, and an evil industrialist (Dreyfuss) who knows all the secrets behind the assassins on their tails.

The movie is based on a Warren Ellis comic book that DC published a few years back; it’s much in the vein of The Losers and The Expendables from earlier this year. Schwentke, who we last saw directing The Time Traveler’s Wife, rebounds with a movie that has much more of a fun side than that movie and is much more entertaining at its core. 

Part of that is the cast that would have made heads turn ten years ago. Willis always seems to be winking at the audience when he does these kinds of roles, kind of a John McLean/Jason Bourne love child who has Vin Diesel’s hair stylist. Parker, who of late has become best-known for her work in the Showtime series ”Weeds,” could use some “less is more” philosophy in her acting style but is solid as the romantic lead.

The supporting roles are mostly juicy and the outstanding cast makes full use of them. Freeman is wasted in a role that isn’t really drawn very completely, but Malkovich can chew scenery with the best of them and he does so here. Cox is a truly underrated actor who has become a dependable character actor, giving his character a bit of a twist on the KGB agent with a heart of gold that Robbie Coltrane nailed in the Bond movies and Mirren is…well, Helen Mirren. She can make even bad movies much better, and she takes an unlikely role and just about steals the movie.

The plot is paper thin and twists and turns, ultimately leading nowhere but it’s really meant to be a vehicle for the action sequences, which are solid although not outstanding. Red doesn’t really require a whole lot of thought and delivers a quite a lot of entertainment for the money. It may suffer from a few action movie clichés (like bad guy marksmanship disease, and plucky heroine syndrome, and perhaps a touch of dirty old man-itis) but all of that can be overlooked in the grand scheme of things. After all, nobody goes to an action movie for the plot.

REASONS TO GO: You do see the picture at the top of the blog, don’t you? Great cast, mindless action and a good deal of fun.

REASONS TO STAY: It’s a bit on the fluffy side and the action sequences really don’t add anything to the genre.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s some violence and some bad language but probably nothing I wouldn’t hesitate to show most middle school-age kids.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: John C. Reilly was originally cast in the John Malkovich role.

HOME OR THEATER: There are a few scenes that probably work better on the big screen but overall I’d say this is more of a home video experience.

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

TOMORROW: The Spirit