It’s 1977 in St. Petersburg. The city is covered in a constant quilt of mist during yet another anniversary of the Revolution and a young Sergey Dovlatov wanders from scene to scene in Aleksey German Jr.’s film, pontificating over the beginning of the end of the Soviet dream and searching for a way to get his writing published.
While the dialogue-heavy film definitely took some time to ease into, the digressive flow of the film became almost therapeutic as Dovlatov enters and exits the lives of other failing writers, sharing stories of rejection by official Russian media, drinking themselves into stupor in a constant haze of cigarette smoke. And although it may have been easy to romanticise these scenes of bohemia, the filmmaker chooses to throw in violent moments of interjection to break the dream, such as when a fellow writer slits his wrists in the newspaper office behind locked doors or a writer friend is arrested by the secret Russian authorities.
The constantly meandering wide screen frame is forever filled with people and things out of focus, and allows the central character’s conversations with others to feel observational - as though we’re part of the crowd. The cinematography also evokes moments of Tarkovsky’s Stalker and the final film of the director’s own father, Hard to Be A God.
Overall, it would’ve been easy for German to make a self-indulgent biopic that spanned the whole life of the great Russian writer, but by instead delicately concentrating the film’s energy on just one year, Dovlatov’s struggle becomes relatable to the everyday viewer.
— George Louis Bartlett