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The Star
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The Star
cast: Alexei Kravchenko, Yekaterina Vulichenko, Igor Petrenko, Artyom Semakin, Aleksei Panin

director: Nikolai Lebedev

97 minutes (15) 2002
Nouveaux DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 8/10
reviewed by Richard Bowden
In the summer of 1944, and faced by a new offensive, the Russian army sends scout units (nicknamed 'green ghosts' by the Germans) seeking information about troop formations behind enemy lines. After two units have failed in their mission, a third group of seven men is despatched under Lieutenant Travkin. After some difficulty the squad - given 'Star' as their call sign - discover the critical facts and struggle to report their findings back to base. Meanwhile, a fresh Russian female radio operator, the first point of contact for the unit, fears the worst for Travkin, with whom she has quickly established a strong bond...

Based on a book by Emmanuil Kazakevich, derived from his own wartime experiences, The Star (aka: Zvezda) has a hardly original plot. One can easily think of war films in which a group of handpicked men are sent out on a suicidal mission, the successful conclusion of which thousands of allied lives depend upon, operations during which contrasting character types inevitably emerge and personal sacrifice is the norm. In interview, director Lebedev has stressed how little he knew of war cinema before he made his film, and such innocence is one reason why he's able to bring a fresh eye to some of the stereotypes, which are nowhere near the distraction that some critics have claimed. But ultimately the real strength of his film lays less in the formulaic plot than in how the director plays with the incidentals, and creates some striking moments as he does so. And, despite Lebedev's blithe disavowance, for alert viewers at least there's some fun discovering echoes of another, much greater Russian war film, in fact the benchmark for such cinema: Come And See.

One of Travkin's crack team is Anikanov, played by none other than actor Aleksei Kravchenko, who played the boy hero of Klimov's masterpiece so memorably. A decade or so older, he provides a much more mature presence here, but recognising the actor is in itself an apt process. Lebedev's film is set in much the same countryside, amongst the forests of Belorussia. Kravchenko's presence at the heart of the action is brings the boy survivor of the earlier holocaust back, still obeying the essential call to arms, still resolutely hounding the cruel invaders out of the Motherland. Other moments recall the earlier production too: there's a swamp scene, during which the unit, Anikanov included, are almost lost up to their chins in the filthy water, avoiding a German patrol. Elsewhere, one or two scenes contain casually shocking images, such as the naked bodies of tortured soldiers floating down the river, or a glimpse out of a truck window at hanged villagers, all of which have a familiar, brief intensity. And, just like Klimov's film, Lebedev ends his own on an image of massed Soviet soldiery, marching implacably towards the foe.

That's not to say that the current work does not offer memorable enjoyment of its own too. During the fraught reconnaissance behind enemy lines, 'Star' patrol face purely military challenges, which are different from the civilian hell of Come And See. The present film is proactive towards the enemy, whereas Klimov's is mostly reactive. Lebedev's Star shines best at such times of difference, notably the film's main set piece, the bombing attacks on the railway station. There are also moments where the cinematography and direction are, frankly inspired: one thinks of the rain falling on the muddy, pale face of a just fallen comrade, washing him clean of the filth of conflict, as well as an extraordinary death scene of another solder, taken from a camera strapped to the actor's chest. Most impressive of all, there's the striking crane shot, which takes the eye from the barn where the unit are hiding, up, out, and through trees from whence advancing Germans appear.

The 'star' of course comes to mean various things during the course of the film. One of the first things we see is a wartime flare, shooting its way through the night. When the impressionistic radio operator Katya (Yekaterina Vulichenko) first appears, she's asked if she's from another unit "or just fallen from the sky?" And, as Russian speakers have noted, when on the radio, Katya hears her love, hero Travkin, say "ia zvezda" which means both 'star speaking' as well as 'I am a star'. Finally, of course, a star is a point of reference, an inspiration perhaps, as well as the Soviet symbol on every uniform.

If there is a weakness to the film it lays in that tentative relationship between Katya and Travkin, the romantic elements of which seem a little undeveloped and over wrought - especially when placed against the turmoil and tragedy elsewhere. What was presumably intended to be understated approaches triteness by the close, this despite the best efforts of actors and score. One only has to remember the similar scenes between a female radio operator and a doomed military figure in, say, A Matter Of Life And Death, to see how close to cloying Lebedev's distantly communicating couple finally are. The Russian director's professed wish to make something romantic out of the conflict (thus staying true to the sensibility of the source novel) ironically brings his film its weakest moments.

Buoyed up by a splendid score by Aleksei Rybnikov, featuring solid performances throughout as well as a suspenseful narrative, The Star is well worth seeking out. The DVD includes some deleted scenes, a couple of interviews - including one with the young and modest director - but not a lot else. Lebdenev has since made a couple of less well received movies, including a fantasy epic, but the present film appears to be his best work so far.

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