For all its flights of cinematic fantasy, the dominant note struck by A Room and a Half, Andrey Khrzhanovsky’s recreation-cum-fantasia of the life of poet Joseph Brodsky, is a melancholy borne of separation. The film brims forth with joyous bits of invention (such as a sequence where pianos, horns, and harps float above snowy St. Petersburg), mixes in handcrafted animated bits where cats and birds stand in for the people in Brodsky’s life, and peppers the poet’s lyrics across its soundtrack, but for all its whimsical creations, a sense of loss is never far from the surface.
Less rigorous and more sentimental than that Russian memory film par excellence, Tarkovksy’s The Mirror, Room and a Half unfolds with a welcome looseness, its first half intercutting sepia-toned childhood scenes of the young poet dining with his parents, trying to get laid or leading other intellectuals in discussion with shots of the elder, balding Brodsky preparing for a return to his homeland. After a happy childhood gives way to political turmoil, the Nobel laureate was forcibly removed from Russia in 1972. The rest of his life—covered in the film’s second act—was spent in exile in the United States, where he remained separated from his family who were denied permission by the Soviet government to visit him.
The film’s credits take pains to “certify” the film’s fictionality and what counts here is not the strict biographical accuracy of the work, but its evocation of a certain strain of emotional truth. In one late, and surely invented, scene, Khrzhanovsky shows Brodsky carousing with a group of Russian ex-pats at an American restaurant. In order to settle what amounts to a barroom dispute over a song lyric, he places a phone call to his parents—the easy nostalgia of the dimly-remembered tune giving rise to a deeply-felt longing for home. But this being fantasy, the film grants Brodsky the chance denied him in real life: an opportunity to return to his native land. In the picture’s finale, the aged poet visits an unrecognizable contemporary Petersburg in which time’s relentless advance is signaled through a dizzying technologically driven modernity. Only the misstep of an imagined dinner with his long deceased parents in the film’s penultimate sequence threatens to overwhelm the closing moments with an overstated nostalgia, bursting through the floodgates at last.