By Anjelika Artyukh, translated by Oleg Dubson in the January-February 2010 Issue
A Room and a Half is proof positive that the intelligentsia is alive in present-day Russia—but is it well? A highly-educated social class, it persists in its efforts to stand up for morality and freedom through critical engagement with the state. Today, to be intelligent in Russia is to be opposed to an authoritarian state that places its own interests above human rights and to economic policies that perpetuate social injustice and inequality. Government ideologues portray the intelligentsia as all talk and no action. In an earlier era, these charges were leveled against Joseph Brodsky.
As an expression of intelligentnost (the qualities of the intelligentsia), Andrei Khrzhanovsky’s film swims against the tide of mainstream Russian cinema. By centering on the poet, emigrant, and Nobel laureate (played by Grigoriy Dityatkovskiy), A Room and a Half bluntly defies the prevailing anti-intelligentsia forces at work in today’s Russia. Brodsky’s work was perennially concerned with exile from a land where intelligentnost was a way of life and the personal credo of Brodsky’s mother and father (played by prominent actors Alisa Freindlich and Sergei Yurskiy). In the film they frankly admit that they have never understood his poetry. Nonetheless, their tolerance for his freedom-loving nature, and their desire to instill in him a sense of respect and a love of art—and of the beautiful city on the Neva River that is now once again named St. Petersburg—made them uniquely worthy of their genius son. It’s no coincidence the film is dedicated to all parents.
A Room and a Half is structured around Brodsky’s recollections of the homeland that he was abruptly forced to leave in 1972: his childhood home, which consists quite literally of a room and a half; the vast expanse of St. Petersburg (then known as Leningrad); and his favorite places, people (including the poets Anna Akhmatova and Evgeniy Reyn), and habits (sitting at his writing table with his cat beside him). Khrzhanovsky, a preeminent animator and the director of several Pushkin adaptations, can’t resist playing with form and genre, freely combining live action with animation. This playfulness is deeply meaningful because for Brodsky, play is the foundation of art, its ontological essence. It’s perhaps the best approach to depicting the artistic life of a poet who in his Nobel lecture wrote that “the one who writes a poem writes it above all because the writing of verse is an extraordinary accelerator of consciousness, of thinking, of experiencing the universe.” In any case, the film’s artistic construction is lively, ironic, and capacious.
Certain figures recur in this whirlwind of jeux d’esprit: the cat, who is often interpreted in Brodsky’s mythology as evoking individualism and love of freedom, and the crow, which personifies the soul of the poet, but which Khrzhanovsky unexpectedly revises. The two crows in the film here represent the souls of Brodsky’s parents searching for a way to reunite with the soul of their son. In the poetic universe of the film, even Brodsky’s persecutors (the KGB and the “vigilant” citizens who work for them) are incorporated within the film’s chorus. Indeed, everyone, both living (Reyn and literary editor Yakov Gordin) and dead (poet Vladimir Ufland) form part of an overarching myth that goes by the name of Joseph Brodsky. Without them the film would probably have been more sentimental and less dramatic.
A Room and a Half could easily have been titled Stanzas, after an early Brodsky poem that begins: “Neither country nor parish / do I wish to choose / on Vasilievsky Island / I will come to die.” The film concludes with the poet realizing the secret dream of which he often wrote, and which was shared by those who missed him in Russia: overturning the laws of time and space, he returns incognito to modern-day St. Petersburg. Khrzhanovsky’s film is a testament to the cinema of play and to a poetic style that breaks the rules and establishes its own free and daring poetic universe. Such an ending underlines the fact that the intelligentsia, as it is embodied in Brodsky’s writing, is a living entity that endures to this day, even though some regard it as a thing of the past.