Another entry in the canon of recent post-Soviet allegories (i.e. Lithuania and the Collapse of the USSR, Katyn), Slava Tsukerman’s Perestroika is a recondite cluster of fictive energy that consistently trips over its zeal to approach the heady subject matter without appearing reductive. As with David O. Russell’s I Heart Huckabees, it’s as though simple drama—an arguably necessary building block of storytelling—is eschewed altogether for the sake of theoretical inquiry and loaded metaphor. What Perestroika lacks compared to that oddity of a philo-confection, however, is a sense of humor to guide the audience through the inferno of nebulous identity crisis.
In the primary pile of narrative rubble, a Jewish-Russian cosmologist named Sasha (Sam Robards sporting a sore thumb of a faux-Slavic accent) returns to Moscow in the early ‘90s to deliver a heady seminar among estranged colleagues after nearly three decades of exile in the Unites States. With copious flashbacks to Sasha’s past providing contextual gravity, the film slowly teases out observations of Eastern Europe’s complex socio-political evolution—or, as it is perhaps more cogently argued, stagnation—after communism’s dissipation. In the most eloquent example, a television producer notes to Sasha that after the death of the Kremlin audiences clamored for the bizarre blend of sex and rabbis: Judaism having been, like pornography, ideologically repressed for years. The impressive point here, though it leads to nothing but curiosity in the plot, is that swapping direct abuse for fetishism is a mere change of racist scenery, and hardly the liberation for which Russian Jews had prayed.
As Sasha wanders the now-“reformed” home of his youth, the film is stricken with temporal and thematic schizophrenia; oddly-placed references to past events inspire gawky transitions to a muted-color history of political scandal and religious conviction, returning to the elusive present only after thoroughly exhausting our patience with the protagonist’s angst-riddled Semitic background, including his lifelong attempt to prove God’s existence with astrophysics, and muddled, anhedonic sex life (two of his lovers are notably American, though it’s unclear what political seduction this configuration is meant to figuratively embody). This protean array of national issues is no doubt a comprehensive checklist of post-Soviet Russian-Judaic identity, but as with the film’s many technical deficiencies, the showing seams fail to suspend our disbelief, creating an angular, arrhythmic story.
Just as the tell-tale aura of green chroma-key dither surrounding the characters in many scenes distracts us from their exchanges, so Sasha’s frequent black-and-white memories of anti-Semitic hostility, and equally frequent digital animations of cosmic nonsense that seem like discarded production scraps from Futurama, obstinately defy juxtaposed themes of humanism and economic confusion: It’s a pot of dissonant ingredients fervently searching in vain for a congealing agent. By the time Tsukerman attempts to produce that cohesive element in the shape of a gratingly rote paternity enigma, we’ve halted our attempts at comprehension; we ultimately identify with Sasha’s internal plight because we can’t see much of a purpose for his existence either.