Before Paweł Pawlikowski, the acclaimed director of Ida (2013) and Cold War (2018), became an Academy favourite with his beautiful black-and-white dramas, he worked as a documentary filmmaker for the BBC. Almost all of his films made in the late 80s to early 90s explore the shifting cultural landscape of Eastern Europe — and Pawlikowski’s preferred way of documenting it was through the lens of local literature. His works on the region’s writers featured the likes of Vladimir Voinovich, Tadeusz Konwicki, and Václav Havel.
But it is From Moscow to Pietushki: A Journey with Benedict Yerofeyev (1990) that is perhaps the pinnacle of this series. Now universally considered a great of Russian literature, Venedikt (sometimes spelt Benedict) Yerofeyev spent most of his life in obscurity, never graduating from a university, working odd jobs, and drinking heavily. His postmodernist poem-in-prose Moscow—Pietushki was a samizdat hit, but was only officially published in the USSR in 1989, almost two decades after it was written. The book follows protagonist Venichka, an alcoholic and a dreamer, as he travels on a suburban train to see his lover and their infant son. But the trip soon turns into a phantasmagorical spiritual journey, where drinking makeshift cocktails — often mixed from household products — is a spiritual endeavour on par with American writer Carlos Castaneda’s experiments with drugs like peyote.
Although it is best if you’re familiar with Yerofeyev and his magnum opus before watching the film, prior knowledge is not a prerequisite, so wonderful is the film at portraying both the writer and the landscape around him. In the spirit of From Moscow to Pietushki, famous poets and drunkards are equal before the camera: a fragment where Joseph Brodsky talks about the book appears next to an interview with Yerofeyev’s drinking buddy Zhenia; great authority figures seem to have a much weaker grasp on reality than the writer’s former cable-fitter colleague. Like Yerofeyev’s own works, From Moscow to Pietushki is witty, absurdist, and deeply poignant. At the time of the filming, the writer was battling throat cancer, and ultimately there was no happy ending. Venedikt Yerofeyev died in May, 1990. From Moscow to Pietushki, however, is a fitting tribute to his memory.
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