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Mystical '4' tells bleak tales of Russian squalor

Immense, mystical, and deranged beyond immediate comprehension, Ilya Khrzhanovsky's ``4" is an apocalyptic allegory of Mother Russia and its current state of squalid exhaustion. There's much in the movie that won't translate to audiences this side of the Volga, but there's also a humor and a fierce filmmaking intelligence that demand attention. Once seen, this experience doesn't go away -- even if you want it to.

As Russia is divided into a European west and a sprawling eastern backcountry, so ``4" falls into a cosmopolitan first third and a vast, heavily symbolic remainder. The early scenes are easiest to take. After an opening shot that sets the film's tone of exquisite brutality -- idle street dogs suddenly routed by the appearance of huge pile drivers -- Khrzhanovsky settles his camera into a late-night urban bar in which three weary strangers bum cigarettes and tell each other lies.

The elegant man (Yuri Laguta) who claims he works in the Russian president's department of bottled water is actually a meat salesman; there apparently being no cows left in the New Russia, his supplies come from a stockpile of decades-old frozen Soviet beef.

The whore, Marina (Marina Vovchenko), insists she's in advertising. The gruff piano tuner (Segey Shnurov) is the most confident fabulist of them all; he's a geneticist, he says, working on a top-secret cloning project that goes back to the Stalin era. They make the clones in batches of four -- two pairs of twins -- and the healthy ones are sent to live in the cities. The sick ones, the majority, go to the rural slums.

This segment is surreal, tough, and funny, and it plays like Edward Hopper's ``Nighthawks " come to life with a script by a post modernist prankster (that's actually a fair assessment of screenwriter Vladimir Sorokin, one of the more controversial voices in post-Soviet literature). So it's a shock when ``4" switches gears and travels with Marina out to the countryside. She has received word her twin sister has died; perhaps there's something to the piano tuner's tales, after all.

It takes her forever to get there -- long, static shots of Marina crossing various wastelands -- and when she arrives, it's to complete chaos. The village is made up of wizened old women (played by the villagers of Shutilovo) whose sole industry is selling handmade dolls for vodka money. The dead sister's job was fashioning the doll's faces from chewed hunks of bread; now that she's gone, her boyfriend (Konstantin Murzenko) has drunk himself into a mournful stupor and the old ladies are panicking.

At this point, director Khrzhanovsky sits back and contemplates the madness, and as plot dribbles away so may much of the audience. The earlier rigor gives way to slapdash camerawork; the entire movie feels drunk, deluded, quarrelsome. That might be the point. Or it might not be.

Even at its slackest, though, ``4" has a bleak sense of national entropy that keeps it glued together. Eventually we circle back and find out what became of the meat seller and the piano tuner, and it isn't pretty. One of the characters builds a purifying bonfire to roast old Russia to a cinder, but Khrzhanovsky knows that fires quickly go out. The drunken crone singing a tuneless folk song, on the other hand -- she'll go on forever.

Ty Burr can be reached at

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