Dovlatov paints a bleak and evocative portrait of the early-70s Soviet Union and offers a compelling statement on the writer’s plight.
I’m not sure the Netflix user base was necessarily crying out for a biopic that evokes the banal paranoia of early-70s Leningrad under Brezhnev, but here we are. Aleksei German Jr.’s new film revolves around Sergei Dovlatov (Milan Maric), one of Russia’s most famous authors, but during a few days in his early life when he was unpublished as a novelist and eking out a frustrated living as a journalist under a censorious and frequently bemusing Soviet government.
Dovlatov is about all this, to some extent, but really more about the writer’s simple responsibility of saying what one really thinks and means, even – perhaps especially – if people don’t like it. This I can relate to, and what’s most interesting about the film and about Dovlatov as a writer is how his sardonic wit and inability to dampen his literary ability is, in itself, a subtle commentary on political repression. He’s simply too talented not to piss people off.
The film quite effortlessly positions Dovlatov as being distinct from the Soviet Union’s totalitarian machinery, while still having to sticky his hands by handling the working parts. He has no explicit desire to be a dissident, unlike his friend Joseph Brodsky (Artur Beschastny), but he has a strong inclination towards success as a writer, which mandates a certain tolerance for political puff pieces that he doesn’t really have. Milan Maric communicates this in his performance, which is wry and alluring and excellent; he permanently seems to be amused by a joke at the expense of the film’s colourless literary milieu that nobody else is privy to.
German Jr. has undeniable technical ability, and his recreation of Leningrad is intricate and compelling without being showy. But the laser focus on Dovlatov prevents anyone else from leaving much of an impression, from his fellow struggling contemporaries such as Anatoly Kuznetsov (Anton Shagin) to his mother (Tamara Oganesyan) and daughter (Eva Herr). The absence of overt, dramatic repression by the state keeps Dovlatov’s courageous subversion understated, perhaps of interest only to fellow writers or admirers of that innate desire to go against the grain. But those who are or are at least intrigued by those things, and those who are interested in the evocation of a bygone time and place, will find a lot of worth in Dovlatov and its quiet, confident depiction of being true to oneself.