"Freeze-Die-Come to Life," a first film by Vitaly Kanevski, offers a stark look at growing up in the frozen wastes of the Soviet Union at the end of World War II. A largely autobiographical work, it is the sweetly grim story of a couple of street-smart kids in the mining town of Suchan. A Russian variation on India's "Salaam Bombay," the film both celebrates and buries youthful innocence.
An engaging pair of nonprofessionals, Pavel Nazarov and Dinara Drukarova, are Valerka and Galiya, playmates who manage a semblance of childhood despite their sorry circumstances. And they don't make circumstances any sorrier than in Suchan, with its towering ash heaps and streets oozing raw sewage. Ragged and hungry, Valerka and Galiya sell hot tea, a ruble a cup, to the downcast miners, the one-legged veterans and the nickel-a-night whores.
Valerka's mother is a prostitute and bartender who locks him out when she has a visitor and reports him to the school administrators when he plays a prank. Galiya, slightly older and wiser as little girls are wont to be, is continually getting the handsome Valerka out of scrapes. And the two of them demonstrate a capacity for playfulness that is all the more remarkable for the ugliness all around them.
Like last week's Polish film "The Interrogation," Kanevski's picture concerns the Stalin era, a period of brutality and deprivation that currently obsesses Eastern-bloc audiences and filmmakers. Though he had unofficial official permission to shoot the film, he did so undercover and on a shoestring in the Soviet Orient. Kanevski was also obliged to edit under duress, which may account for the jagged and puzzling last half of the starkly lyrical film.
"Freeze-Die-Come to Life" won the 1990 Cannes Film Festival's prize for Best First Film, less for artistic merit perhaps than for political considerations.
"Freeze-Die-Come to Life," in Russian with subtitles, is playing at the Key and is unrated.