In 1970s Leningrad, Sergei Dovlatov endured censorship and persecution in Soviet Russia, only to become one of the most important writers of his generation after emigrating to America. Alexey German Jr’s film illustrates the writer’s initial period of frustration and struggle under the brutal control of the state.
German Jr captures the essence of the time wonderfully with meticulous set design and vibrant period environments that create a living, breathing window into the past. The camera travels freely around this world, offering a dynamic insight into this fascinating milieu.
Dovlatov unfurls like a post-modernist Russian novel; it meanders from the household to the writers’ salon, focusing on the details of quotidian life, elevating them up to the light. The story explores tangents and dead ends elegantly, without rushing into generic twists and turns. The audience is treated to a parade of colourful characters who either suffer because they refuse to conform or others who prosper by surrendering their principles for a more comfortable life.
At the centre of this universe is Dovlatov (Milan Marić), who is portrayed as a tortured poet with a wry sense of humour about this purgatory – his irony is his only defence against this limbo he finds himself in. The character is a tragic hero, banging his head against the wall, prohibited from unleashing his great talent by the reactionary writers’ union and the state-run literary magazines.
This sumptuous experience is damaged by stilted dialogue that falls into the trap of explaining and exposing emotions and ideas rather than depicting them visually (which the movie already does well). At one point, the poet Brodsky feels the need to hammer the point home: “I believe we are the last generation capable of saving Russian literature.” Furthermore, the female characters are mere objects, designed to serve Dolvatov’s ego; they either throw themselves at him or emotionally blackmail him.
Visually, Dovlatov uses the language of dreams to interpret a nightmare situation: an artist rendered impotent by censorship. The film bridges the past and the present as the theme resonates with contemporary artists in Russia and all over the world.
Dovlatov does not have a UK release date yet.
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Watch the trailer for Dovlatov here: