92min | Drama | 2004 (Russia)
A drama about a doctor Arje who discovers his illness and decides to go to Israel in order to meet Sonya – the love of his life.
Memories of a wartime childhood blend into the present day in Roman Kachanov’s “Arye,” a more-than-respectable film which depicts, at least in its opening scenes, the plight of Jews in Nazi-occupied Lithuania. The fact that the screenplay was co-authored by veteran dramatist Alexander Gelman, who survived the Holocaust — when almost everyone else in his large family perished — adds poignancy, as well as a sense of truth, to the material.
The film’s title reflects the name of its protagonist, Israel (Izya) Arye. As a child, Izya is caught up in the chaotic and desperate struggle for survival in the Kaunas ghetto. While most of the Lithuanian locals are looting the belongings of the city’s Jewish residents, Izya (Yevgeny Melnikov, later Vitaly Rozenvasser) has the good fortune to be offered refuge by a friendly family, led by the young Iozas (Alexander Balk). Spirited away to safety in a cupboard, he is unexpectedly joined by Sonya (Vera Ivanko, later Bella Sarkisova), the daughter of neighbors.
Their home for the war years becomes the loft of Iozas’ country barn. Although it’s a tranquil, even beautiful setting, the tensions are all too real as the children must repress any desire to move into the open in the small, enclosed community surrounding their refuge. Keeping the children’s existence secret is doubly nerve-wracking, given periodic inspections by local collaborators.
But it’s the tensions inside the loft that prove more acute, as the children move into puberty and make their first tentative attachments to one another. The slightly older Sonya, however, is also attracted to Iozas. This sets into play conflicting emotions, which erupt just as Soviet troops arrive, randomly killing the children’s protector in the process.
Kachanov — who is best known to date for his “Demobbed,” an ironic and often funny film from 2000 about the Russian Army — achieves a considerably tauter and more dramatic tone in “Arye,” especially in its early scenes set during World War II. As the two children are marched away with other survivors, they’re offered the chance of a new life in Israel. Sonya accepts, while Izya, hurt by her betrayal, refuses to accompany her.
The action cuts to present-day Russia, where Izya (now played by the eminent Polish actor-director Jerzy Stuhr) reigns as the chief heart surgeon in a Moscow clinic. Internationally respected and obviously prosperous, he seems to be living the good life — complete with a younger wife, Olga (Angelina Chernova), the widow of a patient who didn’t survive an operation. Memories of the past remain strong, however. Kachanov uses the innovative idea of having the characters in the doctor’s few remaining black and white family photographs talk back to him, and what might sound like a gimmick is actually a rather striking invention.
There are other reasons for unease, too, including suspicions of unfaithfulness. But it’s Izya’s discovery that he has only a few months left to live which precipitates the film’s finale. The news drives him to Israel in a quest to find Sonya (acclaimed Israeli stage actress Sandra Sade); his wife Olga unexpectedly accompanies him on the trip. Izya and Sonia’s reunion leads to a complicated mix of feelings, encompassing elements of melodrama and very human tragicomedy, which have been staples of Gelman’s work over the years.
Allegiances are complicated by the appearance of Iosya, Sonya’s grandson and the spitting image of Iozas (Balk, again); unknown to her during her postwar departure, she was pregnant with the Lithuanian’s child. Izya’s loyalties are riven by a renewed passion for Sonya, mixed with concern for Olga after his impending death, particularly after she reveals that she’s bearing his child. The final scenes appear to be building up toward a happy ending — until the circumstances of a different, present-day war intervene, with tragic results.
All of the major players deliver strong performances, with Stuhr capturing the unpredictable but human irascibility of Izya, set against the quiet, tragic dignity of Sade’s Sonya. A range of cameos — from the likes of rocker Garik Sukachyov, who plays Izya’s guardian angel a la Wim Wenders in “Wings of Desire,” and music critic Artyom Troitsky as an unexpectedly decent bandit — draw attention too.
Nikolai Nemolyayev’s cinematography is especially impressive, capturing both the barn’s confinement and the sumptuous visuals of the Israel scenes. The fact that the film runs entirely in Russian may not be completely true to life, but it highlights another possibility: an English-language remake. Make Izya, say, a New Yorker instead of a Muscovite, and a considerable element of the film’s impact would certainly remain.
Director: Roman Kachanov
Writers: Aleksandr Gelman, Roman Kachanov
Stars: Juozas Budraitis, Angelina Chernova, Vera Ivanko
Release Date: 2004 (Russia)
Also Known As: Арье