In 1994, Russian filmmaker Nikita Mikhalkov (who had already established his reputation with such acclaimed films as “A Slave of Love” and “Dark Eyes”) presented “Burnt by the Sun,” a searing drama of the Stalinist era which earned an Academy Award for Best Foreign-Language Film. To date, it is the only film from the post-Soviet Russian film industry to win an Oscar.
Mikhalkov followed the triumph of “Burnt by the Sun” with the expensive epic “The Barber of Siberia.” But while “Burnt by the Sun” was greeted with critical acclaim and awards, “The Barber of Siberia” debuted in Europe in 1999 to overwhelmingly negative reaction. Despite Mikhalkov’s reputation, the film has never been theatrically released in the United States. “The Barber of Siberia” finally has a chance to greet American audiences through a special screening at the New York Festival of Russian Films. Unfortunately, its appearance proves that its exile from American screens is more than deserved.
Quite frankly, “The Barber of Siberia” is perhaps the worst feature film created by any major current international filmmaker. The film is such a total mess that it presents a journalistic challenge to even conceive how to run an inventory its failings. Indeed, the film is home to a surplus of embarrassments: terrible direction, a stupid script, horrendous acting, ugly production design, and such an acute lack of charm and intelligence that it is truly astonishing to conceive how an artist of Mikhalkov’s talent could ever imagine such a debacle.
The bulk of “The Barber of Siberia” takes place in 1885 and focuses on the self-confident American Jane McCracken Callahan (played by British actress Julia Ormond with a grating faux-American honk-accent), who travels to Russia to meet her eccentric father (Richard Harris, with a Santa Claus white beard and shifting accent). It seems strange old dad is an inventor who is trying to get financing to complete a tree-harvesting machine which he calls the Barber of Siberia. During her train ride to Moscow, Jane makes the acquaintance of a light-headed military cadet named Andrey Tolstoy (Oleg Menshikov), whom she proceeds to get drunk with champagne. Andrey attends a military school where the emphasis seems to be on pranks rather than drills, and it is not uncommon for the wacky cadets to overpolish a dance floor so everyone slides and falls or to spend an excess amount of time rehearsing “The Marriage of Figaro” in drag. (This may explain why the Bolsheviks had a relatively easy time taking over in 1917.)
Through plot contrivances which are too labored to recount here, Jane is somewhat responsible for Andrey being assigned to the Siberian wastelands. Needless to say, Jane’s amusement with Andrey eventually turns to love, and love turns to a certain two-person endeavor which helps to keep warm on any night, Siberian or otherwise. The end result of this liaison is actually the secondary focus of the film: “The Barber of Siberia” is occasionally narrated in a letter to Jane and Andrey’s son, who grows up to be an American soldier circa 1905…but who finds himself stuck wearing a gas mask during a hot summer boot camp training because he won’t follow his sergeant’s orders and badmouth Mozart (don’t ask about that plotline).
A main component in the failure of “The Barber of Siberia” comes in its central casting. As a youthful military cadet, Oleg Menshikov is way too old to be even faintly credible in this part. The actor gamely tries to make up for his obvious miscasting by giving his role an intense burst of zany gestures, frantic head-bobs and wild eye rolls. This doesn’t so much represent the joys of youth as it suggests Menshikov is somehow channeling all three Ritz Brothers simultaneously. He is not helped in the least by Julia Ormond; her flat non-performance as the thoroughly modern American is so painfully inept that it clearly shows why she was unable to make a headway in Hollywood in the mid-90s despite the excessive publicity in her favor. The woman, to be blunt, cannot act and having someone of such woeful non-talent at the core of a major epic is equal to pouring sugar into a gas tank. Richard Harris tries gamely to ham things up, but there is too little of him to make the film work.
Ultimately, however, the film’s problems belong to Mikhalkov. The direction seems to be inspired by late Fellini, complete with heavy-handed surrealism and sight gags mixed with excessively grotesque characters positioned amid atrocious decor. As a director, Mikhalkov has his actors spit out their lines at rapid speed and rush about as if trying to break a speed record of some kind. Often the film has the appearance of a bad silent movie projected at the wrong speed, with a rush of exaggerated activity culminating in nothing.
The script is not much help here. As penned by Mikhalkov and Rustam Ibragimbekov, it cannot make up its mind if it should be a comedy, a travelogue or a melodrama and its attempts to ride these three rails at once results in a hodgepodge. The film’s lapses into slapstick creates more groans than giggles (especially when the tree-harvesting machine is turned on and wrecks the inventor’s workshop) and its characters are so lacking in dimension that the occasional twists into serious matter (an anarchist group’s attack on a Moscow street, the news of Andrey’s exile) seem to belong from scenes from another production that were haphazardly shoehorned into the print. In watching “The Barber of Siberia,” it is impossible to realize this was created by the same man who conceived the extraordinary “Burnt by the Sun.” Talk about an alpha and omega!
“The Barber of Siberia” was clearly intended for American release, as much of the film is in English including scenes which have no reason being shot in the language (why are the Tsar and Tsarina bickering in English?). However, no U.S. distributor has shown any interest in picking it up for release, which is a tribute to the perspicacity of the various directors of acquisitions within the American film industry. “The Barber of Siberia” is a wild Russian turkey that does not need to fly amok in American theaters.