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Film: In Cannes, a tsar is born

The Russians are coming to the film festival - but don't expect a united front.
THE 52ND Cannes Festival begins next week with a gala screening of Nikita Mikhalkov's The Barber Of Siberia, a glossy, big-budget Russian epic starring Julia Ormond and Richard Harris. No doubt the organisers would have preferred Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut or George Lucas' Phantom Menace to launch their annual Riviera movie bazaar.

Nevertheless, The Barber, a sweeping love story along Dr Zhivago lines, has its own unique selling point. It is almost certainly the first movie in Cannes history that can be described as a feature-length party political broadcast.

For months, rumours have been bandied around that Mikhalkov, until now best known for his 1994 Oscar winner Burnt By The Sun, will stand for president of Russia in the June 2000 elections. Significantly, the audience at the Moscow premiere of The Barber Of Siberia included most of Russia's leading politicians. Yeltsin wasn't present, but prime minister Yevgeny Primakov was, as were Communist leader Gennadi Zyuganov, rabid nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky and ex-prime minister Viktor Chernomyrdin.

Mikhalkov himself has already dabbled in politics. He is currently chairman of the Russian Cultural Foundation and the Russian Film-makers Union. He campaigned for Yeltsin in his 1996 re-election campaign. He is a nationalist, with what seem to be - at least to some Western eyes - bizarrely old-fashioned and romantic ideas about Russian culture and identity, and what should and should not be allowed in Russian movies.

"It is inadmissible to keep talking about ourselves like we are people without any dignity," he chided at a recent press conference. St Petersburg- based director Alexander Bashirov notes gloomily that "Mikhalkov thinks every film should have high moral standards". And says his ambition seems boundless: "I think he wants to be tsar, and becoming president is just the first step."

Regardless of whether or not Mikhalkov stands for the Presidency, he is the most powerful figure in the Russian film industry and one of the most resented. Since the devaluation of the rouble last August, Russian film-makers have been struggling more than ever. Piracy is rife. The distribution system is in tatters and most movies are seen - if at all - on video. This makes The Barber Of Siberia seem all the more incongruous.

As US academic Stephen Kotkin pointed out last month in The New Republic, the film's budget, at $45m, was roughly $44m more than that of even the most expensive Russian films made in recent years.

It is little wonder that suspicion about his motives (and morals) is mounting. According to Alexei Balabanov, whose latest film, Of Freaks And Men, won the top award at the Nika Ceremony (Russia's equivalent of the Oscars) earlier this week, Mikhalkov is planning to run the Russian film industry as his personal fiefdom.

First off, Balabanov claims, Mikhalkov wants to set up his own distribution chain. He plans to build new European and American-type cinemas with Dolby Stereo and, with the revenue they generate, to control production. "Production needs money. He wants to control all financing in Russia through governmental support and his private fund," says Balabanov. "He'll be able to decide who makes films and what kind of films will be made."

If Mikhalkov does indeed set policy for Russian cinema, the future looks bleak for Balabanov. His movies have conspicuously failed to win the Mikhalkov seal of approval. "He said the devil was in my films and that Russia must make kind films and good films only - not black comedies."

The advance word on Mikhalkov's own film is, to say the least, mixed. There were reportedly tears and a standing ovation from the big brass at the premiere, but hostile critics have accused Mikhalkov (who himself plays the benevolent, patriarchal tsar in the movie) of being pompous and absurdly sentimental, a charge he energetically denies. "The Barber is not about tsarism or the `glorious' epoch of Alexander III," he argues. "It's about preserving worthy traditions. It's about honour. It's about Russia, a maker and breaker of people. There is no `happy end'."

The Barber's British star, Julia Ormond, couldn't agree more. "Nikita is extraordinary," she rhapsodises. "Genius is a word that is bandied about in the arts. If there is such a thing in terms of directing, he's close to it. He has an incredible sensibility, knowledge of humanity and sense of humour."

Whatever the case, it is guaranteed that next week in Cannes, all the world's movie press will be talking about a Russian film - which is something they haven't done in a very long time.

`The Barber Of Siberia' opens The Cannes Film Festival on May 12 and will be released in the UK later in the year