Hank Stuever
Hank Stuever
Critic

‘Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer’: Striking nerves by striking a chord

The March 2012 arrest and subsequent trial of three members of the all-female art and punk rock collective in Moscow known as Pussy Riot made news here, no doubt. American musicians and artists emphatically demanded the women’s release, but the story was framed and digested in a way that could seem old hat to those of us who tend to take the First Amendment for granted.

But as we see in “Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer,” Mike Lerner and Maxim Pozdorovkin’s captivating and profoundly dismaying documentary (premiering Monday night on HBO), the Pussy Riot episode is merely a symptom of a broader culture clash involving a fervently religious segment of Vladi­mir Putin’s Russia.

Hank Stuever

Hank Stuever is The Washington Post’s TV critic and author of two books, “Tinsel” and “Off Ramp.”

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In the United States, we’ve had decades either to tune out or socially absorb the politics and countercultural impulses that came with rock music and art — a journey involving everything from Elvis’s pelvis to Tipper Gore’s warning stickers on records to the controversial art of Robert Mapplethorpe, Andres Serrano, et al. These dust-ups almost always end in some sort of live-and-let-live truce of free expression.

Russia isn’t headed in that direction, nor is it historically inclined to. “Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer” is more than just a review of the group’s audacious protest in Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Savior and the swift trial that put two of the band members in prison. Deeper down, it’s about intolerance and fear.

Pussy Riot formed as a protest movement after Putin was given (manifested?) a third term as president in 2011. Like all collectives, the group has a broad and youthful list of agenda items, including but not limited to feminism, sexual liberation, free speech and the separation of church and state.

Wearing brightly hued balaclava masks and minidresses, Pussy Riot built its reputation on impromptu, guerrilla-style concerts in places where it would probably be most unwelcome. The group’s rudimentary punk chords and bluntly political lyrics might sound retro and even innocuous to an American ear, but in the sacred naves of the Orthodox cathedral, Pussy Riot sounded like something else entirely.

As the trial gets underway, Lerner and Pozdorovkin interview the Pussy Riot members — Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Maria “Masha” Alyokhina, Yekaterina “Katia” Samutsevich — and begin to sketch profiles of the women, who are remarkably different from one another and have different motivations. Yet each is a daughter of post-glasnost Russia, and their plight personifies the profound political swerves they have endured growing up.

With great empathy and curiosity, the filmmakers interview the women’s parents, who come to it with some heartbreak, support, old-fashioned paranoia and a measure of shamed ambivalence. Tolokonnikova is a memorable subject, using her beauty and outspoken intelligence to wage a battle that is nothing short of a courageous form of art.

But “A Punk Prayer” is not here only to trigger a viewer’s outrage or garner support for the women of Pussy Riot. (There’s plenty of that already.) Instead it also deftly uses the group’s travails to tap into an ugly, zealous fervor that has gripped the Russian Orthodox church and feeds a great deal of nationalistic bigotry. The mob advocating imprisonment and even death for Pussy Riot comes off as a cross between crazed monks, militias and the biker gangs from “Sons of Anarchy,” bullying those who run afoul of their beliefs. The film also recounts the revolutionary era a century ago that led to the destruction of the cathedral in 1931. It was rebuilt after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Once “Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer” has so eloquently situated the controversy within the greater narrative tragedy that is Russian history, everything becomes sharply and painfully focused. If nothing else, you’ll run crying with relief into the arms of the U.S. Constitution.

‘Vice’ goes to North Korea

HBO’s “Vice” will wrap up its first season of macho-intellectual journo-tourism this Friday with a much-anticipated trip to North Korea to meet Kim Jong Un and play some hoops. The half-hour segment is quite an achievement of access, even if all it really accomplishes is to confirm that North Korea reigns supreme in dictatorial creepiness.

Accompanied by former NBA player Dennis Rodman and three members of the Harlem Globetrotters, the “Vice” crew talked its way into a basketball-themed goodwill tour last December, shortly after the ultra-communist nation’s third successful detonation of an underground test nuke and the launch of a military satellite. Both events are still being officially celebrated on the spooky, regimented streets of Pyongyang when the “Vice” gang arrives.

Correspondent Ryan Duffy — one of the show’s hipster-geekster reporters — spends most of his camera time remarking on the surreal nature of the trip, in perpetual disbelief that he is actually in North Korea.

“Completely and totally insane,” he says. (And later: “I honestly felt like I was losing my mind,” recounting a dinner reception with Kim, during which filming was not allowed except by state television.) For all the hype, Rodman doesn’t say much at all, but he is photographed singing a song with an all-girl rock band at the dinner; the coolest, calmest cats on the state-issued limo bus are the Globetrotters, who seem to have the surest understanding of what a goodwill tour is and isn’t.

Every move is carefully orchestrated and policed by the North Koreans. The visitors are driven around on streets devoid of traffic or signs of life; they stop at a shopping mall that seems to exist only for their benefit, where they aren’t allowed to buy anything.

Spontaneity is strictly forbidden, but the Globetrotters manage to persuade the bus to stop long enough for a fleeting moment of fun with children at a playground. “Everything else aside,” Duffy says, watching the children regard these strange Americans in their midst, “this is cool.” And he’s right — it is.

Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer

(90 minutes) airs Monday at 9 p.m. on HBO, with encores.

Vice

(30 minutes) airs Friday at 11 p.m. on HBO.

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