What a Wonderful Game!

Moscow Film Festival, July 27, 1995–Ironically titled, What a Wonderful Game! the new comedy from prominent Russian director Pyotr Todorovsky, is a whimsical youth tale with serious political overtones. As a new type of comedy, the movie reflects the surrounding societal chaos, but the uniquely Russian texture and humor and the material's inconsequential nature and disjointed narrative should restrict pic's theatrical potential beyond Russia and Eastern Europe.

Set in l950, at the height of Stalin's authoritarian regime, comedy concerns four youngsters who reside at a hostel in suburban Moscow. Though students at the Art Institute, the quartet seem to have plenty of time for playing games, as they're never seen in the classroom or studying.

To prove that they can do without life's basic essentials, they make light of their poverty, throwing themselves into frivolous romantic affairs. Tale unfolds as a series of pranks that the students execute on each other, with some funnier and nastier than others.

Operating a secret radio in the basement, one fellow pretends he's illegally broadcasting “the Voice of America,” the very first in the Soviet Union. In another funny episode, a new socialist welfare plan, according to which all prices of consumer goods are substantially reduced, is announced as going into effect in January 1951. But a student who's asked to inform on his nonconformist comrades takes the command all too seriously and hysterically breaks down into tears.

In the last reel, story's tone changes dramatically and the harsh reality of Stalin's terror crushes the youngsters' daydreams and fantasies, showing how a very minor joke could become a major crime. One by one they're arrested and brutally executed. But pic's very last image shows the youngsters freely wandering in the streets of Moscow.

Helmer Todorovsky reveals a playful use with narrative time. Tragic ending could be interpreted as no more than the youngsters' nightmarish anxiety of what might have happened if their games were disclosed. But it could also be seen as a cautionary tale–this is what happened to people who didn't comply or submit to Stalin's dictates.

Production values are modest, as befit pic's small scale, but acting ensemble exudes immense charm, which helps considerably tolerate the excessively episodic and disjointed movie.