The Vanished Empire: Sex, drugs, and rock-n-roll never looked so smart

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Take one 18 year old guy who loves girls, jeans, beer, and rock-n-roll music; add a couple of buddies, a bleak home-front in flux, a potent blend of teenage angst/ennui, and the requisite beautiful girl: what do you get? You get a tried-and-true all-American coming of age story, right? Right, unless, like The Vanished Empire, the film happens to be set in the Soviet Union circa 1973.

Sergei (Aledsandr Lyapin) is the 18 year old scion of Russian intellectuals who does little more than show up for school. His real passion is running the drab streets of Moscow with his buddies Stepan (Yegor Baranovsky) and Kostya (Ivan Kupreyenko) looking for black market rock albums and getting into all sorts of trouble.

Sergei is a handsome charmer  who thinks himself adroitly streetwise. However, all his charm is useless in the face of huge changes looming over the boy on the cusp. His grandfather lives in the past, his mother is ill, his father is absent, and the girl of his dreams (Lidiya Milyuzina) may not put up with his post adolescent stupidity for much longer.

The Vanished Empire is set in a Soviet Union looking at once backward to past glories and inconceivable horrors; and forward to an uncertain future lead by a generation who came of age longing for, and learning how to purchase, Western accoutrements. It seems the mighty Soviet propaganda machine could fend off everything except the Rolling Stones.

Since writer/director Karen Shakhnazarov graduated from the Moscow School for Cinematography in 1975, one can’t help feeling that The Vanished Empire is a first-hand account of the era when the first failings of unbridled communism reared up. In less than 20 years after the film’s mid ’70s perspective, the Soviet Union would cease to exist. Sergei’s, and Shakhnazarov’s, generation would assume the arduous task of overseeing the dissolution of the Soviet Empire and the chaotic rise of the ’90s era corrupt capitalist oligarchy in the midst of a burgeoning and unregulated free market (a not-so-gentle reminder that unbridled capitalism can be ugly too).

Sergei, the character, is the product of a line of University teachers, characters who also reflect their respective generational foibles. His ancient grandfather slouches through life on the back of past intellectual glories and failed theories. His mother is ill and his father is absent, the abject product of those failed theories. Sergei just wants to buy things, fight, and get laid.

The young actors are engaging. Lyapin is handsome with an overly confident swagger that belies his teenage uncertainty. His tenuous balancing act between boyhood and manhood is nuanced and consistent. Baranovsky is suitably understated as the loyal friend who patiently waits for his buddy to screw up just enough for him to make a play for the girl who, unfortunately, inhabits his dreams too.

Miyuzina, as the girl, steals a couple of scenes from the charismatic clutches of Lyapin, no easy task. Her turn as the object of all that post adolescent male dreaming is excellent work that’s easily lost beneath the energy of ornery boys careening through Moscow in a Czech made Tatra. Miyuzina gives a solid performance, but the boys have lots more to do.

The direction by veteran Russian filmmaker Shakhnazarov (Zero City and Jazzmen) is sure and steady. All the technical boxes are ticked and the art direction feels hauntingly accurate (the colorless Moscow streets actually verge on cliché, but that’s just me being overly critical). The story is familiar but with a twist of setting, both physical and temporal, that gives it new life.

Robert V. Daniels, professor emeritus of history at the University of Vermont opens his 1961 essay, “Intellectuals and the Russian Revolution,” with this salvo:

“The outstanding role of the intellectual in modern Russian history is beyond dispute. Among non-Communist historians there is a well-established consensus concerning the nature of the Russian intelligentsia and the distinctive part it played in bringing on the revolution.  The nineteenth-century Russian intellectual was detached from practical affairs, committed to some abstract doctrine, and morally alienated by autocracy and class privilege. This reaction resulted from the cultural precociousness of Russia’s westernized upper class, as contrasted with the frustrating backwardness of the government and the economy. Educated and sensitive Russians had nowhere to turn except to theory.”

It seems, according to Shakhnazarov, ’70s era educated Russians would turn instead to the black market.

With The Vanished Empire, Shakhnazarov takes an affectionate look back at the historical curve of the circumstance and impact of the Russian intelligentsia from these noble beginnings through the Soviet post war ideological wasteland and up to its impending spasms of cultural rebirth instigated by the ubiquitous black market consumerism of ’70s era Soviet youth. And he gets this all done under the guise of a simple teenage sex, drugs, and rock-n-roll flick. Nice work.

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