“East-West” is a lean, well-made film about a nightmarish situation: being held prisoner in your own home.
The time is 1946. Following World War II, Stalin has invited all the old Russian expatriates back, welcoming them with alleged opening arms. A shipload of them arrives in Odessa, only to find, in a rather “Twilight Zone” (but realistic) turn of events, that Mother Russia is not the land of milk and honey they believed it was going to be now. Everyone is imprisoned or executed.
Except, that is, for the Golovin family. Dr. Alexei Golovin (Oleg Menshikov), a native Russian who’s been in France for years, is needed as a medical adviser for the Red Flag Factory. His French wife, Marie (Sandrine Bonnaire), is not quite so welcome. She raises people’s suspicions when she can’t speak Russian, and she wants more than anything to return to her homeland. Her husband, while sympathetic to her feelings, can do very little for her and is torn between trying to escape back to France and staying here where he was born.
The couple and their young son stay at a boarding house with several other poor locals (actually, this being late-’40s Russia, everyone is poor). The woman in charge is a tired old grandmother who is denounced after speaking French to Marie, and who dies shortly thereafter. She leaves behind a youthful grandson, Sacha (Sergei Bodrov, Jr.), who has seen too much already in his 20-odd years and wants out of Russia.
Alexei has an affair with one of the other residents, causing Marie to throw him out. Alexei having been absolutely her last reason to even consider staying in Russia, Marie now employs all her faculties to get out, with Sacha as a like-minded ally.
The movie, though fictional, acts like a true story. It covers a span of several years, no doubt intended to drive home the awfulness of the situation — being stuck in Russia for eight years is worse than being stuck there for one year, after all. The plot, while driving toward a main objective, goes through a lot of twists and turns that seem life-like.
However, knowing the characters and story are not real just makes you wonder why the plot is so labored at times. Alexei’s affair isn’t dealt with as completely as it should be, and the various escape plots don’t add up to as much frustration and/or hopelessness as one would think.
On the other hand, the film does an admirable job at staying focused. Despite its apparent tangents, the main characters have the same major goal throughout. In the end, with a finale that is the very definition of “bittersweet,” nothing seems quite so tangential.
B (; )