Film Review: The Vanished Empire

Bland look at rebellious teens who experience the last days of the Soviet empire.

A coming-of-age drama set during the waning days of Soviet rule, The Vanished Empire flirts with big themes but settles for lukewarm dramatics. Precise enough at times to feel like an autobiography, the film overall never rises above recycling bits from better movies. While it may have been received more favorably in Russia, The Vanished Empire will draw at best tiny audiences in the West.

The film's opening suggests a lighthearted comedy about the romantic adventures of three school friends, circa 1973. But the plot quickly centers on Sergey Narbekov (Alexander Lyapin), a disaffected youth who attends a state-sponsored equivalent to prep school. When he isn't tuning out classes, Sergey is intent on sharpening his image with bootleg blue jeans and rock ’n’ roll records—paid for by pawning his grandfather's antiques.

Sergey woos newcomer Lyuda Beletskaya (Lidia Milyuzina), impressing her mother with tales of his broken home. But Lyuda takes a backseat to hijinks with his friends Kostya (Ivan Kupreyenko), a diplomat's son and bassist in an amateur rock band, and Styopa (Yegor Baranovsky), a studious geek with a hidden mean streak. The three are always willing to stand up for each other in public, keeping their feuds and betrayals private.

In hindsight, Sergey is smart to dismiss school, with its enervating lectures and pointless discipline. The entire Soviet regime was beginning to totter, another reason for Sergey and his friends to smoke pot and listen to rock. Unfortunately, the film pays almost no attention to politics. Sergey hates his class on Lenin not because he disagrees with the propaganda he's being fed, but simply because he's bored. He doesn't buy bootleg records because they are critical of authority, but because he hopes they will make him look cool.

More disturbingly, Sergey's behavior goes beyond what could be expected from a callow adolescent. He treats Lyuda with contempt, despises his single mother's decisions, and views each new co-ed as a potential conquest. It's hard to sympathize with someone who never learns from his mistakes, and who does nothing to improve himself. When he is beset by melodramatic calamities, Sergey finds an outlet in archeology, in this story at least a cure for immaturity.

Director Karen Shakhnazarov stages the action in a brisk, unfussy manner, and elicits affecting performances from his young cast. (Milyuzina is especially good as the lovesick Lyuda.) The head of Mosfilm Studios and veteran of over a dozen features, Shakhnazarov may have been aiming for a Russian Graffiti by casting a rueful tinge over the story's nostalgia. But he never digs deeply enough into the material, and whether through caution or logistics, he can't find a way to expand the scope of The Vanished Empire beyond its niche focus.

The film's period details look authentic and are both charming and amusing. It's a relief to learn that teens of every generation the world over fall victim to garish clothes and cheesy pop music.
—Daniel Eagan