Judge Gordon Sullivan's never been kissed in a photo op.
What happens when your enemies become your friends?
Honestly, I don't know much about contemporary Russia. I do know, though, that every picture I see of Vladimir Putin makes him look like a nut job. I also know, based on the Pussy Riot fiasco, that dissent in Russia is not looked kindly upon. Putin's Kiss surveys the terrain of contemporary Russian politics with a go-getting young woman at the center who learns firsthand about the darker side of political engagement. Though the film's structure could use some work, the overall provides a strong impression of Russian politics and what it means to play on a national stage.
The subject of Putin's Kiss is Masha Drokova, a young woman who joined Nashi, a youth movement that pledges Hitler Youth levels of support for President Putin. Masha rose to national attention when Putin kissed her cheek during a photo op. Though it's supposedly a supportive movement for Putin under the guise of nonviolence, Nashi members have been implicated in violent action against "enemies of the state," essentially those critical of Putin's regime. Drokova seems destined for the national leadership but loses the internal Nashi elections, which starts her on a journey that sees her questioning her loyalty to Nashi and its tactics.
Politics is a nasty business, and countless films have treated the loss of innocence that can result from exposure to the political machine. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is as popular today as it has ever been largely because he doesn't lose his innocence like we expect. Putin's Kiss makes the smart move of exploring Russian politics by choosing an articulate, passionate subject who also happens to be at the heart of important national debates about the country's president. She provides the eyes and ears through which we learn about how politics in Russia really work.
That side of the story is really effective. We watch as Drokova goes from blindly defending Putin and his policies to slowly befriending anti-Putin activists. The centerpiece of the film is a beating received by one of those activists, a journalist known for his anti-Putin stance. Drokova has grown close to him, and she can't ignore the connection to her friends in Nashi. It's compelling and a bit sad to watch her struggle with her belief in Putin's policies, her admiration for him as a politician, and the obvious havoc his henchmen wreak on her new friends.
The film is helped by this DVD. The film was shot on video and has a rough-and-ready look to it that the 1.85:1 anamorphic transfer does a good job supporting. Detail isn't always great, and colors are a bit bland, but that suits the somewhat oppressive atmosphere of the political struggles the film documents. The stereo Russian audio is well-balanced and clear despite being captured on location for the most part. There are, of course, English subtitles for those who don't speak Russian.
Sadly, the only extras are the film's trailer and a stills gallery. This is the kind of film that begs for more contextual featurettes, especially on Putin, and it would be really great to get a bit more candid material or deleted scenes. Interviews with some of the subjects after the film came out would also have helped round out this package.
The lack of extras reinforces one of the big problems with the film; there's something about it that feels a bit too pat, a bit too perfect. The trajectory that Masha follows seems to work out a bit too perfectly at times. I know that sometimes filmmakers get lucky and have the cameras rolling at just the right time (or they keep them rolling long enough), but things work out in Putin's Kiss just a little too often to be totally credible. There are also a few scenes that seem like they were put on strictly for the camera's benefit without making that fact clear to the viewers. A little more transparency would do a lot to help the film's credibility.
Putin's Kiss is an interesting documentary that takes a long (four year) look at contemporary Russian politics. With an interesting subject at the center and a clear narrative arc, the film offers a compelling 87 minutes of information. However, I'm left with the suspicion that the situations documented here were not quite as the camera caught them. It's worth a rental for documentary fans and those looking to get a glimpse into Russian politics in the wake of Pussy Riot and similar protests. The lack of extras, though, make it hard to recommend a purchase for any but diehard fans.
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