The right to make any film you want, any way you want is something filmmakers in most countries take for granted. But no one can afford “It can’t happen here” complacency, and this year, the Cannes competition slate includes films from two directors whose home countries have prevented them from traveling to attend the festival, despite appeals from festival director Thierry Fremaux. Russian director Kirill Serebrennikov’s wistful and exhilarating Leto (or Summer) premiered on the festival’s second day. Jafar Panahi’s gracefully made but only modestly engaging 3 Faces was presented Saturday evening. Serebrennikov was arrested in August on charges of corruption and has since remained under house arrest in Russia. Panahi, the Iranian director who was sentenced to six years in prison in 2010—and who served several years of that term under house arrest—is now allowed to move more freely within Iran, though he is still barred from making films. If anything, these restrictions have spurred him on: 3 Faces is the fourth film he’s made under the ban.
An absence can be a kind of presence, and although 3 Faces is far from Panahi’s best work, it’s still a solid primer on how much a skilled filmmaker can achieve with very few resources. In the story, the principal actors play themselves, or versions of themselves. Young Iranian actress Marziyeh Rezaie plays a woman whom we first see in a small film-within-a-film that kicks off the story. She’s distressed because she wants nothing more than a career as an actress, and she has a chance to study at a prestigious drama school in Tehran, but her parents refuse to give their consent. She has appealed to Behnaz Jafari—a famous Iranian actress in real life, as in this film—for help, but Jafari hasn’t responded. Razaie records all of this on a cellphone video. The end of it shows Marziyeh slipping a noose over her head and hanging herself.
The video reaches Panahi, and he brings it to Jafari’s attention. Together, they set off in Panahi’s SUV to see if they can verify that the desperate young girl is really dead—or, if she isn’t, to find her. 3 Faces is the gentlest of road movies, seemingly a nod to the films of Abbas Kiorastami. (Panahi served as his assistant director early in his career.) Panahi’s camera lens soaks in the landscape—its chief feature is a narrow, dusty, seemingly endless swerving road—but conversation is the chief feature here: He and Jafari needle and quiz one another, each unsure of the other’s motives and true thoughts as they argue over the veracity and intent of the girl’s video. The “three faces” of the title refer to three generations of Iranian actresses—Rezaie, Jafari and an older, retired actress and dancer named Shahrazade, who never appears on camera but who has lived an independent life that seems dangerously defiant in the context of modern-day Iran. Her absence is also a kind of presence, a ghost from the past who also represents a possibility for the future.
3 Faces isn’t an overtly political film; its boldness lies in the fact that it got made at all. And Serebrennikov’s Leto doesn’t seem like the sort of thing that would ruffle official feathers; in fact, it’s soon to open theatrically in Russia. But Serebrennikov’s colleagues in the Russian artistic community—in addition to making films, he was formerly the director of the Gogol Center, a Moscow experimental theater, and has been vocal in his criticism of Vladimir Putin—have stated their certainty that his arrest is politically motivated. The cast of Leto held up a “Free Serebrennikov” banner at the film’s premiere.
But even if Leto doesn’t trumpet any obvious political agenda, it still feels dangerous, like a sidelong glance that shoots daggers. The movie is a fictionalized reverie about the life of Russian rock star Victor Tsoi (played, with slouchy charisma, by the German-born actor Teo Yoo), who died in a car crash in 1990. Set in Leningrad in the 1980s—a time when Soviet musicians were deeply in love with the likes of T. Rex, David Bowie and Iggy Pop, and eager to translate those influences into their own language of sound—it’s a movie about the optimism of cynicism, as a blunt force that keeps pushing forward. Shot mostly in scruffy-elegant black-and-white—with some exhilarating fantasy segments enhanced by animation that mimics the effect of film stock with the emulsion scratched off—Leto is one of those movies that whisks us into a world that feels both familiar and fresh, like a sense memory of a life we might have lived if we’d been born in another decade or on another continent. In mood and tone—and as a depiction of the beginning of something big, and of the need to shout, if not twist-and-shout—it resembles Iain Softley’s marvelous and largely forgotten 1994 Beatles origin story, Backbeat.
Leto’s plot, if you could even call it that, goes every which-way: There’s a love triangle between Victor, Mike (Roman Bilyik)—the slightly older, more established musician who takes him under his wing—and Natasha (the radiant Irina Starshenbaum), Mike’s wife and the mother of his child. But the movie also details the ins and outs of making rock’n’roll in the latter days of the old Soviet Union: To become a member of a music “club,” and to be allowed to perform in public, Victor has to submit his song lyrics to an appointed official, who scrutinizes them for any hidden political content—or malcontent.
Leto is a marvelous document not just of a time and a place but of a mode of being. In the ‘80s, those of us who loved Talking Heads and Blondie and Lou Reed knew that people all over the world loved them too, even though there was no social media to tell us so. Sure, you could figure it out from reading magazines or watching television or talking to friends in other countries. That’s logical. But I prefer to think of that shared love as a kind of telepathy between young people all over the world. (The movie also features some of Victor Tsoi’s original music, which most Americans aren’t likely to know.) In that sense, Leto is simply about youth, which is so obvious a subject—and so easily confused with that other, coarser notion, nostalgia—that you might think it’s not enough to hang a whole movie on. On the other hand, maybe it’s everything.