Despite my previously documented affection for Joseph Brodsky, I somehow didn't hear of Andrey Khrzhanovskiy's 2008 film A Room and a Half when it was released. Last night I went to a screening at the Jewish Museum and found out what I'd been missing.
The film takes its title from an essay by Brodsky -- the closing piece of his collection Less Than One -- which moved me to tears when I first read it. In this essay, written after his parents' deaths, Brodsky describes growing up with them in the eponymous room and a half -- the family's share of a communal apartment in Leningrad. He goes on to imagine his parents' life in those rooms without him, after his forced exile from the Soviet Union. The Communist Party repeatedly denied their requests to go abroad to visit him; he never saw them again.
Khrzhanovskiy's film is based largely on this essay and on the title piece of Less Than One (another account of Brodsky's youth), but culminates in a surreal vision of a return trip to Russia that the poet never made in real life. Even without this ending, there would have been no danger of the film being mistaken for a documentary. It's a collage of live action, animation and archival footage that slips constantly back and forth between fantasy and reality. (All of the actors are excellent, but Grigoriy Dityatkovskiy was a particularly good choice to play the adult Brodsky; I sometimes had trouble telling whether I was looking at the real poet or the actor.)
The film is ultimately as heartbreaking as Brodsky's essay, but there's plenty of humour here too. A good deal of it is provided by cats in various guises. The family's pet cat (I don't know if they had one in real life) lightens several scenes with typical feline mischief; later on, cartoon cats stand in for Brodsky and his fellow poets, lounging about scribbling lines and gobbling down fish.
I was impressed by the film's soundtrack. There were pieces by Shostakovich (who appears briefly in a pub, where Brodsky's father asks him for the football score), popular Russian and American songs of the time, and recordings of Brodsky reading his poetry in typical singsong style. None seemed superfluous, and all fit the moment perfectly. Most striking of all, though, was the use of birdsong, and particularly the chattering of various types of crows.
At various points throughout the film, a pair of crows represent Brodsky's parents. There are the real life crows who live in Brodsky's garden in America (Brodsky tells us that one appeared after his mother's death, the other after his father's) and seem to follow him throughout his imagined journey to Russia. And when Brodsky's parents are old and alone in their room and a half, a pair of animated crows appear in several sequences. They are naturalistically drawn, yet have human expressions. They huddle together in one scarf, watch ice skating on a 1950s television, try to skate on a frozen pond themselves, fall down and help each other up. It's some of the most emotionally affecting animation I've ever seen. You can see a snippet of it in the film's trailer:
The Jewish Museum's screening was introduced by Elaine Feinstein, who spoke briefly about her friendship with Brodsky. I knew Feinstein mainly for her translations of Marina Tsvetaeva's poetry, which turned the strict rhyme and metre of the Russian originals into English free verse. I never liked this approach, and it seems Brodsky didn't either, because he criticised Feinstein for it when they first met. (Feinstein defended herself by saying that the conventions of English poetry were different from the conventions of Russian poetry, and that where Tsvetaeva used rhyme and rhythm, an Anglophone poet would have used free verse; thus, a free-verse translation was more accessible to English-speaking readers. I don't think I agree with that, but I understand better now where she's coming from.) Fortunately they got past that rocky start. Feinstein came across as a warm, generous and unpretentious person, and I was left wanting to read some of her own poetry.
By the way, a question for fans of Russian film: When the credits came on, I noticed that certain names were enclosed in boxes. Is this normal? What does it mean?