Russians often grit their teeth at the way their country is portrayed in Hollywood films: a grim, wintry post-Soviet wasteland peopled with mafia thugs, drunks, and Kremlin megalomaniacs.
That may be set to change, thanks in part to a global movie star, "the Russian actor of French origin" Gerard Depardieu, who was granted Russian citizenship by President Vladimir Putin last January after he ditched his native France in a huff over high taxes.
Mr. Depardieu, who has become a vocal booster of his new homeland, is currently making a movie in Moscow and its repeatedly war-ravaged southern republic of Chechnya. It's a fairly standard blood-and-guts thriller called "Biryuza" (Turqoise) – a tale of tragedy, betrayal, lots and lots of mayhem and, finally, sweet bloody revenge.
But Depardieu and the film's producers are making it clear that this movie's backdrop will be graphically different from the sad, impoverished land so often depicted by Hollywood. It will be set amid the glittering skyscrapers and swank nightclubs of Putin-era Moscow and the risen-from-the-ashes boulevards and modern apartment blocks of postwar Chechnya. And it will feature many noble Russian – and Chechen – characters, as well as the usual gangsters.
With his co-star, British actress Liz Hurley, and director Philippe Martinez in tow, Depardieu faced journalists at a press conference in the Chechen capital, Grozny, on Wednesday to explain why he chose Chechnya to make a violent vengeance-themed movie.
"I followed everything that happened here and saw a city totally rebuilt and very sympathetic people," he said. "I saw more love and friendship than hate here."
But, perhaps also in the Putin-era spirit, anyone with questions about human rights abuses or the arbitrary one-man rule of Depardieu's "very close friend," pro-Moscow Chechen strongman Ramzan Kadyrov, was made to feel extremely unwelcome.
Asked by a journalist whether there were any parallels to be found in the fictional Depardieu's character's murderous revenge streak that culminates in Chechnya, and the real-life assassinations of Mr. Kadyrov's political foes that have been documented by human rights monitors, the film's director Mr. Martinez exploded in fury, according to the Independent.
"I have to tell you I’m a bit ashamed that you are asking that question," he is quoted as saying. "Gerard Depardieu and Elizabeth Hurley are making a movie in Chechnya! And you’re asking questions of a political nature! I don’t even want to answer."
He also separately greeted American action film star Steven Seagal, whose movies he praised as illustrating Chechen-like traits. "Nobility. Willpower. Honor. Qualities characteristic of Chechens. So we can say [Seagal] is almost a Chechen!," Kadyrov noted on Instagram.
Mr. Seagal is another star whose high-profile shoulder-rubbing with Putin and now Kadyrov may be helping to shift Russia's image into more positive territory.
A plot summary for Depardieu's upcoming film, posted on director Martinez's website, says "Turquoise is a film of revenge and redemption set against a backdrop of a gorgeous, modern day Russian Federation ... Told in a powerful, visually stunning cinematic style, Turquoise highlights Moscow’s thriving art scene, seductive nightlife, and stunning architecture while Chechnya’s beautiful natural landscape and extraordinary redevelopment is seen through [the Depardieu character's] eyes."
But some experts say the new-look Russia – and Chechnya – featured in films like this may be even more misleading than the old stereotypes were.
"Chechnya is a territory that exists completely outside of the political norms and legal requirements of the Russian Federation," says Stanislav Belkovsky, president of the independent Institute of National Strategy in Moscow.
"Putin basically handed the republic over to Kadyrov in order to pacify it. The appearance of stability and calm in Chechnya are the main things he wants right now. Chechnya today is basically a despotic little statelet that has nothing in common with Russia, except that its 'miraculous' revival – all that new construction – has been financed entirely by the Russian state budget," he says.
The fact that movie stars can hold press conferences in Grozny's new five-star hotel and make films under the watchful eyes of Kadyrov's security doesn't mean the republic is safe, says Alexander Cherkasov, a Caucasus expert with Memorial, Russia's largest grassroots human rights organization.
"Kadyrov was handed total power to defeat the rebels, but the rebels are still there, and the main result [of his rule] has been massive human rights violations. To suggest that this territory might be safe for, say, tourism, is very premature."