Two Russian Brothers

Two filmmakers on different paths

Once there were two brothers who were filmmakers. One said he could only make movies in Russia. The other said he worked best in America.

The story of Andrei Konchalovsky and his younger brother, Nikita Mikhalkov, reads like a parable of the paths open to Russian artists today.

Born into a long line of Russian writers and painters, the brothers had an immaculate pedigree. Their father penned the Soviet national anthem, and they grew up with the comforts of the elite.

They share an interest in history, epic stories, and the Russian identity. They are both successful. Where they split is over the paths they have taken.

The options for Russian film directors are either to stay at home and fight for resources, tight since the collapse of Soviet-era subsidies. Or go abroad in self-imposed exile to seek opportunities in the West.

Mr. Mikhalkov took the first option. His brother, Mr. Konchalovsky, chose the second.

The story of Konchalovsky, who took the unconventional step of adopting his mother's maiden name to set himself apart, is of a wanderer. Despite a 20-year suppression of his film "Asya's Happiness" - about a village woman who happily bears an illegitimate child - he managed to survive Soviet censorship more than two decades to churn out melancholy films heavily influenced by Ingmar Bergman.

His epic "Siberiade" (1980) brought him international acclaim, including a prize at Cannes. But he emigrated to the West shortly thereafter seeking more creative freedom. He made Hollywood films that boasted big stars but not box office success: "Tango & Cash" (1989) with Sylvester Stallone, "Runaway Train" (1985) starring Jon Voight, and "Maria's Lovers" (1984) with Nastassia Kinski.

But Konchalovsky always kept his eye on Russia, never fully settling into American life. He returned home for a couple years after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. But his films, particularly the satirical "Ryaba My Chicken" (1992) about perestroika (economic restructuring) seen through a chicken's eyes, failed to strike a chord with Russian audiences.

He now flies restlessly between the United States and Moscow, not fully at home in either country.

In an interview with the Monitor in New York recently, Konchalovsky expressed dislike of Hollywood's commercialism and nostalgia for Russia. He spoke about possibly settling in New York as a compromise.

"I felt very comfortable going back once a year to visit Russia. It's my roots," he said, looking the part of the intellectual in corduroys and wire-rimmed glasses. "But I can make films everywhere. I'm cosmopolitan."

Russia does not seem to figure on his itinerary for the time being. His last project was "Odyssey," a televised adaptation of Homer's epic, which won an Emmy and was the most expensive TV mini-series made in America. And he would like to make a feature film about the most American of literary figures, Henry David Thoreau.

"I'm interested in big scale like 'Odyssey.' If you want to make a film about Henry David Thoreau, it won't be in Russia. It would have to be here," he said.

In contrast, Mikhalkov is the model of contentment sitting in his Moscow office decorated with trophies and icons - and a bust of the last Russian czar, Nicholas II. With his cell phone purring in the background, Mikhalkov cuts a conservative figure in an immaculate navy suit and gray silk tie.

He has become one of Russia's most beloved directors. His success culminated in the Oscar-winning "Burnt by the Sun" (1994), an indictment of Stalinist purges.

As head of the Russian Union of Filmmakers, Mikhalkov is on a mission to revitalize moviegoing here. He speaks passionately about the need to refurbish theaters. And he does not share his brother's fascination with America. "The Americans undermined their own authority in the Russian market by selling us their bad films," he says.

Asked if he has considered working abroad, Mikhalkov instead turns on a VCR to show rushes of his latest film. "The Barber of Siberia" is a love story between an American woman and a Russian cadet set against the revolutionary events of the turn of the 20th century. "See!" he exclaims, eyes fixed on the screen. Sleighs and horses and carriages race through the snow. Red Square is lit up as never before on film. Life before the Russian Revolution comes alive with sumptuous costumes and peasant festivities.

"That is why I have to make movies here in Russia," he says as a scene flashes of an opulent officers' ball. "It would be impossible to do anywhere else."

The brothers' relationship with each other invariably comes up as a topic. Konchalovsky displays irritation at the suggestion that he was influenced by Mikhalkov. When the brothers meet they do so as harmonious equals, he said.

"These days we get together around the table and talk about film," Mikhalkov concurs. "Before I began to make film, I felt his influence. But not now," he said.

"We try to avoid serious disputes.... It's enough for me to love him, and he to love me."

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