Director: Aleksey German
Cast: Milan Maric, Danila Kozlovsky, Helena Sujecka
Watch Dovlatov online in the UK: Netflix UK
Let it never be said that Netflix takes the easy route when building its library of original films: after it won the Silver Bear at the Berlin International Film Festival earlier this year, the streaming giant snapped up the UK rights to Dovlatov, a biopic about the Jewish-Armenian poet Sergei Dovlatov. Never published in Russia until just before his death, he only found fame posthumously. A cheerful period romp, this biopic is not.
We meet Dovlatov (Milan Maric) in 1971 in Leningrad, as he continues to spend his life in poverty and in a constant state of rejection. We follow him from editorial offices and factory magazines to publishers’ parties, failing to secure work or simply failing to make work that pleases anybody anyway. An artist at heart, he strives above all to preserve his creative work and his soul, something that’s easier said than done (or written) under the repressive Soviet regime, even when one isn’t an out-and-out rebel (his friend, Joseph Brodsky, on the other hand, is sent into exile).
Asked to write about a film depicting Russian historical figures, Sergei approaches the whole endeavour with a wry sense of humour, and that streak of bitterness and irony produces a news article that can’t get an official seal of approval. That’s par for the course for Dovlatov’s existence, and while we only witness a few days in Sergei’s life, director Alexey German conjures up a tangible sense of routine and normality. That, on the downside, means that things remain fairly uneventful and slow; the pacing will be a challenge for those who don’t enjoy conversations about literary merit, references to Hemingway, or sympathise with a journalist’s struggling lot. But Maric’s lead performance is compellingly charismatic, with his hangdog, Hollywood-friendly look of smirking melancholy, and he’s well served by German, who captures 1970s Russia with a stunning eye, and a grubby sense of mundane, lived-in reality.
“Reality is inseparable from fiction in Russia,” one writer observes early on. It conjures up a hint of pointed commentary that feels buried, unaddressed and ultimately undeveloped over the 126-minute runtime. But there’s an immersive atmosphere to this portrait of 1970s Russia; shots of Dovlatov’s silhouette against the snowy, dreamlike streets of Leningrad emerge as a gorgeous snapshot of an under-appreciated artist just before he emigrated to live in the USA.
Dovlatov is available on Netflix UK, as part of an £8.99 monthly subscription.