Nasha Russia, the Movie
Published: February 5, 2010 (Issue # 1545)
Ravshan and Dzhumshud arrive at Sheremetyevo Airport packed neatly in a suitcase and are promptly set to work redecorating an oligarch’s apartment for the princely wages of 500 rubles ($16) each. Speaking broken Russian, they are forced to fend for themselves in Moscow, armed only with a plastic bag full of power tools.
The two gastarbaitery, or guest workers, from an invented but presumably Central Asian country are the heroes of “Nasha Russia: Balls of Fate,” the first feature film about Russia’s most downtrodden class. They originated as characters in TNT’s television show “Nasha Russia,” a sketch comedy similar to “Little Britain.” In the show, they are incompetently repairing an apartment for It-girl Ksenia Sobchak, although they’ve been doing it for a couple of years — and there’s no sign of her moving in yet.
The full-length film has had pretty good reviews in the broadsheets — which resolutely ignored the television show. That’s probably because although it goes for easy laughs — there are many jokes about toilets — there are some sharp points, too. And even some sympathy for the people who shovel the snow in your yard every morning.
Ravshan and Dzhumshud are working for a moustachioed Russian boss — played by Sergei Svetlakov, who also plays numerous other characters in the film — who pockets 70,000 euros ($98,000) for their job and insists on confiscating their passports. Despite this, they have misplaced devotion for him. When they believe mistakenly that he is injured in a car crash, they desert the apartment and embark on a road trip across Moscow to find him, taking in a casino (one of the few out-of-date jokes), an office party at a bloated bank (slogan: “The crisis missed us!”) and the Sklifosovsky hospital, where doctors are bleary-eyed from overdoing the medical spirit.
The gastarbaitery don’t really speak Russian — which does limit the script opportunities — although they talk to each other fluently in a made-up language that is translated. They’re naive, trusting and easily shocked by male models or massage chairs. A lot of the jokes are slapstick, such as when they gatecrash the bank’s party and short-circuit the sound system as a pop singer is performing “live,” a joke that was probably a bit old in “Singin’ in the Rain.”
There’s some topical humor, too. Discussing what they’ll do with their 500 ruble windfall from repairs, one says he’ll buy the next village, while the other confides, “I’ll invest in nanotechnology,” the hobby horse of former energy chief Anatoly Chubais and President Dmitry Medvedev.
In my least favorite joke, they encounter a gay pride parade, where the marchers run away at the sight of police, only for a po-faced journalist to say to camera: “Doesn’t this make us look terrible to the European Union?” Misguided they may be, Moscow’s defiant gay pride organizers are definitely not cowards.
The “balls of fate” of the film’s title refer to the golden balls of Genghis Khan, which the oligarch keeps in a box in his apartment. He demonstrates to his dinner guests that all he has to do is rub them and oil prices go up. While inquisitively exploring the apartment, the gastarbaitery find them and pop them into their plastic bag. The film ends with a standoff between the ludicrous oligarch — his catch-phrase is “I punish cruelly” — and an army of orange-clad gastarbaitery wielding spades and brooms around the Lenin statue on Kaluzhskaya Ploshchad.
It may not be the kind of orange revolution that keeps Prime Minister Vladimir Putin awake at nights, but the film does have a happy ending.