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Jordan Hoffman

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Jordan Hoffman is a writer, critic and lapsed filmmaker living in New York City. His work can also be seen on ScreenCrush, Badass Digest and StarTrek.com.

Sundance Review: ‘Pussy Riot’

6.7

When the candy-colored Russian agitprop punk group Pussy Riot was arrested in February of 2012, it was because of an impromptu performance of “Mother of God, Drive Putin Away.” It was significant because they dared to jump on the altar at Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Savior, the most sacred space in Russian Orthodoxy, taking, as one elderly woman put it, a sh*t in the heart of the country.

The performance itself, which lasted about 60 seconds, is undeniably important, but it is, from an artistic point of view, none too impressive. Pussy Riot’s music is lackluster junk, and their guerrilla actions are jumping around like dopes to a pre-recorded tape.

In line with this, “Pussy Riot: A Punk’s Prayer,” is about an interesting topic, but the film itself is not quite up to snuff. The film, directed by Mike Lerner and Maxim Pozdorovkin, is a mix of Frederick Wiseman-style verite and typical talking heads, but it doesn’t offer more than what you’d have learned clicking all those Pussy Riot news articles that hit your Twitter feed last year.

Russian culture, so we’re told, doesn’t have an understanding of performance art activism. Furthermore, the religious right has an extremely strong hold on the culture post-Communism. Nadya Tolokno, born just as the Berlin Wall was coming down, is ostensibly the leader of the Pussy Riot collective. She’s certainly the most photogenic, and the one with the best resume for shocking the squares, what with putting on a live sex show while eight months pregnant at the Biology Museum.

She and her comrades hate Vladimir Putin, whom they call the Patriarch, though this film doesn’t get into too many specifics as to why. It doesn’t matter. The group decides to stage sensational event that maybe disturbs the peace a little bit, though some people might just call it livening up the place.

Their anti-Putin rhetoric mixed with their “blasphemy” in the Church got them in sincere hot water and fired up the already divided country. Their trial became an international story; heck, even Madonna wore a brightly colored ski mask during a performance as a show of support.

“Pussy Riot: A Punk’s Prayer” follows each step of the story with a thoroughness that borders on tedium. In addition to interviewing the parents, all of whom are still proud of their daughters, but to varying degrees, we see footage of how they planned some of their performances. We also take a ride with some members of the radical Orthodox community, who look like extras from a Slavic version of “Sons of Anarchy.” Their wistful comments about how, in the 16th century, they “just burned witches” is nothing short of terrifying.

The moments that have the most resonance, however, are when the three women in the doc — Nadya, Katia and Masha — are overheard chatting with one another.

“I don’t want to be a background image,” Nadia wryly complains as videographers shoot them while they talk and laugh. They know how the media works, and they know that since what they are saying isn’t “important,” it will only be used as a flash on TV as other people make comments.

The imprisonment of Pussy Riot is, in the grand scheme of things, not the world’s greatest atrocity. (They’ll all be out in a year.) Nor is it anything that I, an American, can do a damn thing about. “Pussy Riot: A Punk’s Prayer” is at its best, however, when it shows an activist’s determination. The real moments with these extraordinary women basically make up for the remainder of the very “60 Minutes” vibe of the film.

Grade B-


Categories: Reviews

Tags: Documentary, Maria Alyokhina, Maxim Pozdorovkin, Mike Lerner, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Pussy Riot, Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer, Sundance, Sundance 2013, Yekaterina Samutsevich