Roots Lost and Found


The renaissance of Russian-Jewish cinema in the post-Soviet era highlights the construction of a post-Soviet secular Jewish cultural identity, and conceptualizations of home and homeland. Olga Gershenson’s film review of Pavel Loungine’s Roots, provides an overview of post-Soviet Russian Jewish cinema and expressions of Russian-Jewish identity. Recent scholarship focused on Russian-Jewish secularism shatters myths about the idea of a singular Jewish homeland, language, and culture. Gershenson’s review illustrates that, “Mixing and matching cultures, languages, and gags” is an integral component of Jewish culture and identity.

Film Review of Roots, directed by Pavel Loungine. Russia/France, 2006 (Russian, English, Yiddish)

It seems that the whole world is obsessed with roots. The more globalized we become, the more important it seems to find the very hut (or yurt, or cave) from which our great grandparents tried so hard to escape. This seems to be especially true for Jews. Numerous documentaries reflect American obsession with the Eastern European roots—from somber Shtetl to playful Divan and Melting Siberia. A story of a young American’s travel to Ukraine is a plot of a recent motion picture, Everything Is Illuminated, based on Jonathan Safran Foer’s acclaimed novel. It is in this context that Roots—its English title is a give-away—appears on the screens of North American Jewish film festivals. It is also a story of Jewish heritage travel, reimagined by one of the most sarcastic and paradoxical Russian directors—Pavel Loungine.

Loungine heralded a remarkable renaissance of Jewish film in post-Soviet Russia (Jewish themes were off limits for filmmakers in the Soviet era). His Taxi Blues, a film that brought him European fame, recounts an ambivalent relationship between a talented Jewish musician and an anti-Semitic cab driver. A later film, Luna Park, tells the story of a Russian neo-Nazi thug discovering his Jewish heritage and reconciling with it. Tycoon is based on a real story of the rise and fall of a Russian-Jewish oligarch. But Loungine’s films are also concerned with the Russian national character, in such films as The Wedding and The Island.

I wonder what answer would Loungine himself give to the question, where is home? He was raised in Moscow, in a Russian Jewish intelligentsia family—his father was a famous Soviet scriptwriter, and his brother a film director. But after an enormous success of his perestroika-era film Taxi Blues, Loungine moved to France and lived there for many years. Lately, he’s been shuttling between his native Moscow (where he runs now his own production company) and adopted Paris. He is what Stalin would call “a rootless cosmopolitan” (also a code word for Jew).

In his award-winning film Roots, Loungine satirizes both Western obsession with heritage travel and post-Communist Russian petty entrepreneurship. The premise is simple: exploiting the desires of the rich and naive westerners to be reunited with the long-lost family members, a small-town crook, Eduard (charismatic Russian film star Konstantin Khabensky), devises an efficient scheme. The backwater Ukrainian town Golotvin will be renamed for a week Golutvin (the real Golutvin, with its tongue-in-cheek name echoing the Hebrew Galut—exile—was razed by the Nazis), and several locals will be hired to impersonate the long-lost relatives. No one will get hurt. The locals will earn a few bucks, foreign dupes will be reunited with their (or not their) loved ones, and even the postindustrial town, mourning the closing of its cement factory, might profit from the ex-pats generosity.

The main character of Roots, Eduard, is a descendant of a line of smooth con-artist characters in Russian literature and film. He might be a grandson of Chichikov, the infamous collector of “dead souls” from Gogol’s eponymous novel. (It is hardly a coincidence that Loungine also directed a miniseries for Russian TV, based on Dead Souls, with Khabensky as Chichikov). Or Eduard might be a son of con man Ostap Bender, a protagonist of cult Soviet novels by Ilf and Petrov. Like Ostap Bender, Eduard is potentially Jewish. Khabensky has a history of playing Jewish characters, and his Eduard, despite his scheming, is portrayed sympathetically. Perhaps Eduard is also a grandson of a hapless luftmench of Sholem Aleichem’s and Mendele Mocher Sforim’s stories.

Eduard’s exploits bring together several sets of “family members,” intercutting the stories of their respective unifications. Perhaps the most lyrical of them is the story of Esther (the incomparable Esther Gorintin, a non-professional actor who made her debut at 85) and Sam (Otto Tausig, a veteran of Austrian cinema). During the Holocaust Esther was separated from her little brother, Sima, and so when she meets an American Sam Goldman, she is certain that he is her long-lost brother. As the two converse in broken Yiddish, they develop a true bond. In a scene of high visual poetry, Esther takes Sam to the field where her family was executed by the Nazis. Now it’s overgrown with poppies, and as they sit down to rest, Sam puts his head into Esther’s lap and she sings him an old Yiddish lullaby, “Schluf, Sima, schluf.” In a state of bliss, he tells her, “I am so happy now.” But we, the audience, know that the empty field is all that was left from the lively Jewish town after the war…

A very different story evolves between the Russian-Israeli Baruch (played by a former Russian TV star and now an Israeli theatre actor Leonid Kanevsky) and a local rabbi Tsousaki (Daniil Spivakovskii). Baruch, a black-clad Mafioso, a cross between the American Godfather Don Corleone and the Russian-Jewish gangster Benya Krik (from Isaac Babel’s stories), wants to rebury his dear mother “at home.” He shows up in Golotvin with a tiny casket containing his mother’s remains secretly excavated from a cemetery in Israel. Tsousaki reluctantly rents out his own family grave for the reburial. A string of gory details make this subplot a jewel of Lounguine’s eclectic cinematography, combining elements of slasher, thriller, and horror flick. As the casket is deposited in the newly acquired family tomb, Tsousaki is tormented by his feelings of remorse for “selling out” his family’s sacred site. He decides to secretly dig the intruder out. He digs every night, and every day Baruch fills the grave in again. And so, a bizarre cat-and-mouse pursuit follows, until Baruch catches Tsousaki and carries out a proverbial Russian threat by tearing his ear off. But even these two “relatives” are reconciled in the end: in return for the torn ear, Tsousaki agrees to leave Baruch’s mother in his familial grave permanently.

Roots is overpopulated with other motley characters, some of them underdeveloped and others clearly inserted only for comedic relief. Challenges to Eduard’s enterprise pile too high, and what started as a dark but poignant comedy turns into a farce. At the end, though, Lounguine’s characters, native Golotvin-dwellers and their pseudo-relatives alike, are reconciled with their real and imaginary stories. In the end, it does not matter whether Sam is Esther’s true brother or whether Baruch’s mother is sharing her grave with an unrelated Jewish family. Something elusive that they were looking for is found, and something is gained by everyone. In a way, Eduard’s mission succeeded, despite the deception.

All these characters speak in several languages with a variety of accents. Even Hebrew and Yiddish (so rare in Russian film!) are heard on screen. There is also a rare appearance of a klezmer band. Subversively, the band accompanies a Ukrainian folk celebration, complete with soulful singing, voluptuous blondes in embroidered shirts, and toasts of vodka. Unsurprisingly, despite a shower of prizes and praises at film festivals, in Putin’s Russia, Roots was too Jewish and too “ethnic” to become a national blockbuster. Good thing we live in the globalized time, and the film found its way to us…

Mixing and matching cultures, languages, and gags, Lounguine’s Roots masterfully dishes out its bizarre twisted comedy. But for brief moments the film transcends its own absurd humor and becomes a bitter and, yet, moving reflection on the contemporary condition of global longing for local roots.

Author’s note: I originally presented these ideas at the Center for Jewish History in New York as a part of "Where is Home?" film and lecture series. I'd like to thank Jeffrey A. Shandler for inviting me to discuss Roots at this event.

This review first appeared in the New Vilna Review and is published with the author’s permission.