Film Review: Alina

Ben Barenholtz’s debut as a writer/director is a modest meditation on the perils and pleasures of immigration and assimilation.
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Ben Barenholtz is arguably best known as the “father of the midnight movie.” His adventurous programming selections at NYC’s Elgin Theater back in the 1970s first drew serious cinephile attention to psychotronic titles like Alejandro Jodorowsky’s El Topo and David Lynch’s Eraserhead. Now in his early 80s, Barenholtz has made his narrative film debut as the writer/director of Alina. Far from the expansively trippy mindbenders of his days as an exhibitor, Alina is a modest production. This reed-slender meditation on the perils and pleasures of immigration and assimilation was made on a micro-budget and boasts only a handful of mostly nondescript locations.

Alina accompanies its eponymous heroine (Darya Ekamasova), a 20-something shutterbug and occasional pianist, on her journey from Moscow to New York City in search of her long-lost father. Along the way, Alina finds a job as hostess in a nightclub, gets zonked on drugs and edges perilously close to prostitution. The specifics of the narrative seem cleverly reverse-engineered to allow Barenholtz to fold in as much commentary on the experiences of several generations of immigrants from Russia and Eastern Europe as possible: everything from canny location use of the Russian Samovar and its cultural associations with the exiled Russian poet Joseph Brodsky, to the almost casual prejudice of Alina’s gorgeous blonde roommates (anti-Semitic as well as anti-Estonian), not to mention the far darker shadow of sex trafficking and forced abortions.

The film offers diametrically opposed visions of assimilation. On the one hand, Alina’s “mean girl” roommates counsel her to adopt ersatz “bling” and discard her pathetic grandmotherly clothes in exchange for slinky outfits and garish makeup that will more effectively display her “assets.” Over against this sham and superficiality, there’s the amicably bickering Italian family whose success testifies to the possibilities for legitimate upward mobility, even as they bemoan the processes of gentrification that have drastically reshaped the New York streetscape over the last few decades.

Barenholtz takes great pains to foster a sense of inclusivity throughout Alina, showcasing the grand democratic experiment that is the émigré melting pot of diverse beliefs and cultures. Witness the sprawling, racially integrated band Genes and Machines that plays Alina’s farewell party. The Italian clan employ a Columbian “houseboy” who sends his entire paycheck back home every month. By film’s end, their matriarch (Diane Martella) has informally adopted Alina as one of the family. Alina’s immediate attraction to her son, David (David Atrakchi), doubtless has something to do with this.

This last development is one plot strand that never fails to feel tacked on. Even the otherwise excellent score turns subtly sappy during their scenes together. Alina plays at times like a roughed-out sketch for a film in which certain swathes of character motivation and plot mechanics have been left blank. Such are among the perils of the first-time filmmaker. But, fortunately for Barenholtz, these flaws are far from fatal.

Eun-ah Lee’s cinematography adds a glossy cinematic sheen, transcending the film’s dominant mode of docudrama realism for one bravura set piece that externalizes Alina’s drug-addled consciousness in splashes of primary-hued lighting. And the film is buoyed by a committed, finely calibrated central performance from Ekamasova. Her training as a dancer is readily apparent in the remarkable scene where Alina reaches for emotional catharsis through pure movement, trying to lose herself in a traditional Russian dance, but not quite making it. 

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