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Cannes Review: Kirill Serebrennikov’s arthouse crowdpleaser ‘Leto’

Kirill Serebrennikov’s LETO is a tribute to music, dreams of youth and the power – and beauty of ambition. Despite a masterful and at times stunning musical sequences, an aspect rarely seen in Russian cinema, the film scores low on characterization while impressing visually with Kirill Serebrennikov’s inventive eye and fantastic production design work.

The story is strangely underdeveloped and inaccessible for those who have not followed much of the underground movement in the Soviet Union at a time when music was much more than a piece of entertainment but more of a resistance mechanism – but where LETO excels is actually showing the inner workings of a group of teenage music lovers who dream to make it in the music world in the face of censorship and regime oppression.

Three central characters, Mike, Viktor and Natasha, find themselves embroiled in a love triangle set against their ambitious march towards cult fame in Soviet Union Russia. As Mike gains key status as a gutsy, bold and ambitious singer, Viktor joins his band and soon after becomes both a professional and a personal competitor: Natasha, Mike’s girlfriend, starts to develop feelings for him.

But the film doesn’t seem interested in exploring the characters psyche or motivations beyond the music, which will be completely fine for those more in tune with European cinema in particular where artsy pieces tend to do best. In the wider market, including regions such as North America, the Middle East or Asia, the film may not be uniformly accessible to those who prefer more in-depth characterization and dialogue-heavy pieces.

Despite being overlong and aimless in terms of storytelling, the film boasts several superbly choreographed musical numbers that play as day-dreams to an otherwise grim reality. The sequences are constructed as La La Land in the Soviet Union, capturing the dreamy nature of musicians who have a lot to say in their music but are frustrated with harsh realities.

Kirill Serebrennikov’s direction is superb visually but flawed in terms of bringing the story together to make the audience identify with the characters. If you’re an underground music fan, the film might be an unforgettable and truly enjoyable experience for you – but for the wider audience, not all parts of the film may land the desired impact.

Verdict: A Euro arthouse crowd pleaser, LETO stuns visually but doesn’t equally impress narratively.

Grade: B-

About Mina Takla

Mina Takla is a foreign correspondent for AwardsWatch and the co-founder of The Syndicate, an online news agency that offers original content services to several film brands including Empire Magazine’s Middle East edition and the Dubai Film Festival. Takla has attended, covered and written for multiple film festivals online including the Dubai International Film Festival, Abu Dhabi Film Festival, Cannes, Venice, Berlin and Annecy Film Festivals. He has been following the Oscar race since 2000 with accurate, office-pool winning predictions year after year. He writes monthly in Empire Arabia, the Arabic version of the world’s top cinema magazine and conducts press junkets with Hollywood stars in the UK and the US. He holds a Master’s degree in Strategic Marketing from Australia’s Wollongong University and is currently based in Dubai, UAE.

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