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Review: Dovlatov
by Rose Finlay

Alexey German Jr., Russia/Poland/Serbia

Unpublished in his homeland until a year before his death in 1990, Sergei Dovlatov quickly became one of Russia’s most beloved authors. His work can be inaccessible to those who aren’t Russian, with many of his references based in the Soviet Union, Russian folklore, and word play. Perhaps this explains why he is virtually unknown in the United States, where he emigrated in 1979. Until a few years ago, most of his works were not even available translated into English. Unfortunately, director Aleksey German’s take on six days of Dovlatov’s life in 1971 is unlikely to provide much clarity about the man’s work or life for international audiences wishing to have a good introduction.

Taking place during the Brezhnevian Stagnation, a time of increased censorship and state control of free expression following the thaw of the Khrushchev years, film depicts six days in 1971 while Dovlatov (Milan Marić) grows increasingly depressed at his inability to be published. He is convinced this censorship is related to his Jewish-Armenian roots, but it is also obvious that his opinions, and those of his friends and acquaintances, are too progressive for the publishers following the government line. So he spends his time despairing, drinking, and attempting to write the banal lifestyle pieces his editors task him with despite it being an affront to his creativity.

German shows a very bleak Leningrad, full of fog and grey skies, desaturated in that way that all films about the Soviet Union seem to be. For if there is one thing we audiences need, it’s to be slapped upside the head with the visual cue that the seventy years of the Soviet Union were a bleak and depressing time. Milan Marić, as the eponymous character, does a decent job considering the script merely calls for him to become increasingly depressed in a rather repressed way, occasionally throwing out quips to prove how much more intelligent the author was than the general Soviet schmuck. The whole film feels like it is missing passion or a plot, likely the result of choosing six days instead of allowing more time, but perhaps also a statement of the ineffectualness of Dovlatov’s life during this time. Nevertheless, for foreign audiences who were hoping to learn a bit more about the author, some insight into his life and work, they are unlikely to find it in this quiet film which talks a lot about the man’s genius, but never really gives any concrete examples.