Scandal as Russia picks box office flop for Oscars

Russian movie critics and filmmakers expressed bewilderment Tuesday after the country picked a critically-panned film by veteran pro-Kremlin director Nikita Mikhalkov as its entry for the Oscars.

The head of the country's Oscar committee, Vladimir Menshov - himself an Oscar-winning director - publicly spoke out against the decision by his own organisation to nominate Mikhalkov's unloved war epic "Citadel".

"The film had an absolute critical drubbing, it was never shown anywhere internationally," Menshov told the Echo of Moscow radio on Tuesday. "And most importantly, it was a catastrophe at the Russian box office."

The film cost around $40 million to make, but made only $5 million, Menshov added.

Mikhalkov himself is a member of the committee that picks Russia's Oscar entries, while many other members have close ties to the bombastic director, who won an Oscar with "Burnt by the Sun" in 1994.

Capitalising on that film's success, Mikhalkov has made two World War II-set sequels to "Burnt by the Sun," the second of which is "Citadel". As well as directing the films, he also played the lead role.

The committee passed over arthouse filmmaker Alexander Sokurov's "Faust" - crowned with the top prize at the Venice Film Festival - as well as "Elena" by Andrei Zvyagintsev, which won a special jury prize at Cannes, Menshov noted.

Five of eight members backed it, said Menshov, who himself won the Oscar for his "Moscow Does Not Believe in Tears" in 1981.

The US Academy Awards committee then decides whether to nominate Russia's entry in the best foreign film category.

"Everything depends on Mikhalkov's personal power," Menshov told the Interfax news agency.

Mikhalkov heads the Union of Cinematographers, a bastion of the film establishment, and held the premiere of his first "Burnt by the Sun" sequel in the Kremlin.

His film "12" was Russia's Oscar entry in 2008 and shortlisted for the award.

"Yet again the Russian Oscar committee has preferred cronyism to common sense," the Moskovskiye Novosti daily wrote scathingly.

"This is a shameful situation," film critic Valery Kichin told Moskovsky Komsomolets tabloid.

Russia feels humiliated by its lack of Oscar success in recent years, but its state-backed film establishment has failed to embrace arthouse talents feted in the West such as Sokurov and Zvyagintsev.

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