It’s always great to know that there are viewings out there showcasing films that are very different to the normal multiplex fare. Academia Rossica have recently launched a new cinema club, KinoKlub, which is, naturally, showing films from Russia. Their remit is broad and the movies shown vary from art-house to family fare (such as the delightfully fluffy New Year’s film Yolki 3), offering something for everyone. Last weekend saw the launch of s retrospective of the works of writer/director Alexei Balabanov, who sadly passed away in 2013, leaving a fascinating body of work. His debut feature Brother (1997) was shown on 1st February and a major retrospective of his work will be screening at KinoKlub until May 2014.

Brother was the first fictional feature film that was written and directed by Alexei Balabanov. It’s a film that uses its modest budget to its advantage by creating an intrinsic realism to a story which depicts criminal activity as societal necessity. Danila (Sergey Bodrov) has just finished his national service. Following a slight altercation on a film set he returns to visit his mother who urges him to contact his brother Viktor (Viktor Sukhorukov), whom she rarely sees as he now lives in St Petersburg. The hard up Danila travels across the country to find his brother, and when he does so, discovers that Viktor can offer him opportunities to earn cash. The problem is his brother’s employment propositions generally fall onto the distinctly wrong side of the law as Viktor is convinced his young brother’s military service puts him in good position to deliver violence to any gangland adversaries whenever deemed necessary. Girls, gear, guns and gangs all await Danila’s prospects, particularly as Viktor sees potential in setting up a new business. Danila also has relationship issues as, following an escapade that led him being shot (though not as badly as those he was commissioned to shoot) he escaped onto a tram and eventually formed a romance with its driver Sveta(Svetlana Pismichenko), who seems keen to start a relationship despite being beaten by her husband and threatened by the gangs. But then there’s also free-spiritied drug peddling hip-chick Kat (Mariya Zhukova) who Danila is also attracted to.

Brother is a combination of gritty indie realism, social drama and family observance but, importantly, it also ensures that there is a vein of distinctly black humour throughout the running time. At times it feels like early Scorsese meets Luc Besson in a crazy world of hipness and violence. In many ways Danila has a need to rejoin society after his stint in the army, and this is marked by his occasional desire to obtain and listen to a particular song by the band Nautilus which he heard post conscription while ruining their video filming. He constantly seeks the track and even goes to see the band in concert. So culture, music and survival form the basis of Danila’s world as he goes to – at times – ridiculous ends to appease his brother and ensure that he receives some income.

A combination of gang warfare and retribution, relations and relationships, mixed with drugs, violence and dark humour, Brother makes for essential viewing.

Following the film’s success Alexei Balabanov went on to produce some of the most respected films in a variety of genres from the indie shocker comedy Of Freaks and Men (1998), a sequel Brother 2 (2000) and a multitude of increasingly engaging projects. A Balabanov retrospective showcasing his remarkable body of work on the big screen is therefore most welcome. The other films showing in the season are:

Of Freaks And Men (Pro Urodov I Lyudey) Russia, 1998, comic drama, 97 min

Differing vastly from the bruising realism of the Brother films is Of Freaks and Men (1998), this is an idiosyncratic take on the pioneers of film and photographic pornography in Saint Petersburg in the early 1900s. ‘Every director has only one good film. Mine is Of Freaks and Men”, Balabanov told Esquire Magazine, expressing his own infatuation with this aesthetically stunning sepia film.

Brother 2 (Brat 2) Russia, 2000, crime thriller, 122 min

The sequel to Brother, which follows the protagonist Danila Bagrov to the US, was also an immense hit in Russia, where audiences enjoyed seeing the Russian cast as the hero in contrast to America’s anti-Soviet cinema.

War (Voyna) Russia, 2002, action, 120 min

War is a politically uncompromising action drama which, through examining the Chechen War, looks at the broader, centuries-old question of Russia’s relationship with the Caucasus and Europe.

Morphine (Morfiy) Russia, 2008, drama, 110 min

A loose adaptation of Mikhail Bulgakov’s early autobiographical stories, this film also draws heavily on a contemporary film theme of addiction. The script was originally written by Sergei Bodrov before his death in 2002.

It Doesn’t Hurt Me (Mne Ne Bolno) Russia, 2006, drama/romance, 100 min

A deeply touching and tragic love story looking at life and love in modern, urban Russia; not dissimilar to Remarque’s ‘Three Comrades’, the film combines friendship, humour, love and suffering to create a vivid chemistry

Cargo 200 (Gruz 200) Russia, 2007, thriller, 89 min

The title is taken from the code name for the bodies of the fallen Soviet soldiers shipped back from Afghanistan. Using grotesque imagery reflecting the reality of Soviet life in 1984, the film is shot in the muted colours of Soviet cinema, Balabanov wrings some grim amusement from a group of pathological characters, led by a sadistic police chief.

The Stoker (Kochegar) Russia, 2010, crime drama, 87 min

The Stoker kindly allows gangsters to use his furnace as a convenient way to discard of inconvenient corpses. The film is one of Balabanov’s most savagely sardonic and entertaining examinations of Russian society.

Me Too (Ya Tozhe Khochu) Russia, 2012, drama, 83 min

A dark comic drama following a motley crew of characters seeking truth and fulfilment. The film speaks of Balabanov’s cynical view of modern Russia and a crumbling European civilisation.

Academia Rossica is a cultural organisation set up in 2000 to promote and strengthen cultural and intellectual ties between Russia and the English-speaking world. For details of the KinoKlub screenings check out their website.