Movie review: Bolshoi Babylon
Documentary filmmakers Nick Read and Mark Franchetti go behind the red velvet and once iron curtain to unveil the ugly beauty that is Russia’s legendary ballet company
Directed by: Nick Read and Mark Franchetti
Featuring: Maria Alexandrova, Sergei Filin, Vladimir Urin, Anastasiya Meskova
Running time: 86 minutes
By Katherine Monk
Broken glass and needles purposefully secreted in point shoes to sabotage a prima ballerina? Acid thrown in the face of a company director because he didn’t cast the right person? If you thought Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan was an over-the-top take on the tutu-ed world of professional ballet, you haven’t seen the reality-TV-inspired Russian version: Bolshoi Babylon.
A new documentary from veteran journalist Nick Read and Mark Franchetti that premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival and airs on HBO, Bolshoi Babylon takes us behind the scenes of the world’s leading ballet company in a moment of utter crisis. On January 17, 2013, the company’s director Sergei Filin was attacked in the parking lot outside his apartment. A complete stranger threw acid in his face, causing severe burns, blinding him in one eye and creating a scandal that rocked the very foundation of the Russian identity.
This is how the movie begins: with news coverage of the event, images of a bandaged Filin being transported to Germany for skin grafts and specialized treatment, and representatives of the ballet, and the Russian government, trying to throw bandages on a weeping wound.
Everything about the first act is so ugly, so petty and so far beyond redemption, it alters our very understanding of beauty.
After all, the Bolshoi is considered one of the world’s best ballet companies: the cocoon that allowed the likes of Alexander Godunov and Dmitri Shostakovich to take flight. Every stage action is a testament to strength, elegance, athleticism and disciplined perfectionism. Their entire mission is to make the ordinary human form transcend its natural bounds and articulate something divine.
Beauty is the Bolshoi’s desired brand identity, but when Read and Franchetti focus their macro lens on the personalities and micro-dramas that make up the company and its cumulative psychology, everything starts to look hideous.
It’s not the most seductive foot to start on, but it works by hooking us with the grotesque and a hint of police show procedural as we follow these two outsiders on their inquisition — which proved far more difficult than even the filmmakers imagined.
The Bolshoi Ballet, like many things under the direct control of the Kremlin, isn’t an entirely transparent organization. They have a habit of keeping their problems to themselves, which makes up-front and frank discussion of the problems next to impossible.
Even Filin, the central victim in the film, isn’t all that eager to be on-camera, making Read and Franchetti’s task all the more difficult.
And you can feel a sense of frustration bubble up between the frames as they try to get real answers to hard questions, but receive little more than a shrugging smirk and some empty catchall, such as “it’s Russia.”
Yet, for all the double-speak and obvious obfuscation of fact, we do get a better understanding of how the Bolshoi actually functions, and how it’s a truly apt symbol of the Russian psyche: Puffed up by a sense of preternatural importance, and defiant in its denial of internal flaws, we see how individuals are rigorously trained to surrender to the institution, yet stubbornly cling to ego because they know the institution is corrupt and incapable of offering a genuine reward.
And perhaps that’s the biggest revelation in Bolshoi Babylon because we can see that it’s not just an isolated case of carb-starved ballet dancers experiencing moments of hunger-induced psychosis. It’s a national condition, only exaggerated by its presence on the grand stage.
Read and Franchetti get just enough from each interview to hint at the larger truth hiding behind the curtain, so even if we never get all the answers, we still leave the experience with an undeniable sense of awe — at all the ugliness, as well as the irrepressible beauty that is ballet.
Bolshoi Babylon airs on HBO.
THE EX-PRESS, December 21, 2015