A Room and a Half
While watching the new Russian documentary/drama/animated film “A Room and a Half,” opening January 20 at Film Forum, I was struck by the thought that while it had a potentially compelling narrative it was not telling it in the straight forward manner for which the story seemed to cry out. “A Room and a Half ” is about Joseph Brodsky the Russian-Jewish-American poet who won the 1987 Nobel Prize for literature and was made U.S. poet laureate in 1991. In 1972 he was asked to leave Russia, presumably due to his writing. Brodsky left behind his parents who he never saw again.
The film was made by Russian animator Andrey Khrzhanovsky and was a selection at last fall’s New York Film Festival. Khrzhanovsky uses animation, re-enactments, archival footage, photographs and Brodsky’s poetry to tell the story which jumps back in forth in time and has fantasy sequences. While it is all nicely done technically, with some nice animation, a lot of the film left me feeling disconnected emotionally from what was going on. Much of the animation and fantasy sequences felt indulgent and did not advance the story. In addition the film takes place during specific periods of Russian history: Russia under Stalin, Russia in the 1950s and 1960s. I would have liked more historical background about these times, specifically how these periods impacted Brodsky’s life.
In terms of what “A Room and a Half ” told me about Brodsky’s life and career, I actually learned more from a quick visit to wikipedia than I did from watching this film. For example from the movie I did not know that Brodsky taught at many American colleges as well as at Cambridge University in England. While watching the film I assumed Brodsky was portraying himself only to find out on wikipedia that he died 1996.
“A Room and a Half ” was at its most cohesive when it dealt with what seems to be its main point, the fact that Brodsky never saw his parents again after leaving Russia. We see a sequence where his elderly parents try to work their way through the Russian bureaucracy to receive permission to visit their son in America, to no avail. The film also has an emotionally rich fantasy sequence where Brodsky returns to Russia and visits his now-deceased parents still dwelling in the apartment where he grew up. The three of them sit around the kitchen table and talk. These sequences are decent narrative filmmaking and I wish the film had more like them.
Maybe I am taking the whole thing too literally and should have surrendered more to the images and poetry, which might have been enough if this had been a short film. For a movie that runs 130 minutes though I needed a story to carry me through. While “A Room and a Half” is nicely done in many respects a clearer narrative combined with the animation and fantasy sequences would have pulled all the elements together for a stronger film.
“A Room and a Half ” will be at Film Forum through February 2.
A Room and a Half, director Andrey Khrzhanovsky, 2009, Seagull Films, 130 minutes