8 films that will help you improve your Russian

Zhora Kryzhovnikov/Bazelevs Production, 2013
Are you tired of charts with cases, tenses, and vocab? Want to cry after looking at declensions? Relax. Russia Beyond has selected some films to help you with your language studies, so grab some popcorn, sit back, and enjoy.

1. Solaris, Andrei Tarkovsky, 1972

Solaris, Andrei Tarkovsky

This Soviet sci-fi film, based on Stanislaw Lem’s novel of the same name, tells the story of a space crew on planet Solaris. Just an ocean covers the faraway planet and scientists on Earth begin to doubt if there’s any point in continuing to study it. But while in Solaris’ orbit, the crew realizes that the planet’s ocean possesses reason and wants to make contact with people.

It is through the prism of contact that Russian film legend Andrei Tarkovsky illustrates his primary humanistic message: “Man needs man.” The film is excellent for intermediate and advanced learners, but the slow dialogue may also be useful for the beginner. The film is available with subtitles on YouTube and Amazon.

2. Burnt by the Sun, Nikita Mikhalkov, 1994

Burnt by the Sun, Nikita Mikhalkov

A personal drama and a political crisis simultaneously unfold one summer’s day at the dacha of legendary communist and Red Army brigade Commander Sergei Kotov. The psychological intimacy of family relations intertwines with a historical cataclysm, the Great Terror, which the Soviet government carried out in 1936-1938 to purge the ranks of communist “saboteurs.”

In 1994 Burnt by the Sun won an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film and became a classic of Russian cinema. Perhaps the dialogue will not be understood very easily without subtitles, but the film is good for building up your political and military vocabulary, as well as for understanding an important period in Russian history. It is available on Amazon.

3. Brother, Alexei Balabanov, 1997

Brother, Alexei Balabanov

Danila Bagrov has just ended his emergency service in Chechnya during the First Chechnya War (1994-1996) and returned to civilian life. Hanging around without anything to do, he takes his mother’s advice and goes to visit his older brother in St. Petersburg. It turns out that his brother is not the businessman that everyone had thought, but a killer. Soon Danila also becomes a criminal, accepting his brother’s request to murder a criminal big wig.

This film contains everything you need to know about Russia in the 1990s: Racketeering, bandits, drugs, the illegal possession of weapons, lawlessness, and anarchy. The film became a hit of the new Russia. It is better for advanced learners and contains a lot of slang and criminal terminology. You can watch it on YouTube.

4. Moscow Does Not Believe in Tears, Vladimir Menshov, 1979

Moscow Does Not Believe in Tears, Vladimir Menshov

This is another Oscar-winning melodrama that authentically illustrates life in the Soviet Union during the 1970s. Three young women decide to move from the provinces to the capital, hoping to build a better, happier life. The film’s name speaks for itself: Moscow doesn’t turn out to be the fantastic city where your dreams instantly come true.

You will see the daily life of Soviet citizens and the social and psychological crisis they experienced in the 1970s. There are many dialogues and simple, everyday conversations, which are ideal for beginners. The film was hugely successful in Russia and today people still quote it. For example: “Everybody strives to live in Moscow as if it were elastic.” Buy the film on Amazon.

5. III, Pavel Khvaleev, 2015

III, Pavel Khvaleev

This film is about two sisters from a quiet, phlegmatic European town who encounter an insurmountable impediment: One of them becomes terminally ill and medicine cannot help her. Soon they realize that the origin of this illness lies beyond their understanding and they turn to a priest.

The film has suspense and some religious terminology that you are unlikely to hear in most Russian films. It’s available on Netflix.

6. Kiss Them All!, Zhora Kryzhovnikov, 2013

Kiss Them All!, Zhora Kryzhovnikov

Provincials, the Black Sea coast, and a party that has “slightly” gone out of control. If you are curious to know how Russians celebrate weddings, Kiss Them All! (in Russian “Gorko,” which is what people shout when newlyweds are about to kiss each other) is a teaching aid. Conservative relatives with their ridiculous, vulgar rituals and a fashionable wedding by the sea.

The comedy genre is not Russian cinema’s forte, but this film is perhaps one of the best embodiments of Russian humor on screen. It will definitely bring you closer to the people. Watch it for free here or buy it on Amazon.

7. Election Day, Oleg Fomin, 2007

Election Day, Oleg Fomin

This amusing, ironic comedy is about a story that occurs on the eve of regional elections. The director of a popular Moscow radio station receives a political order: “Promote” a certain candidate at the elections and take votes away from his competitors. The radio station’s “best brains” set out to realize the project but, as is customary in a sitcom, encounter a truckload of problems and curiosities. It turns out that no one really wants this victory, even the “technical” candidate himself, who is a provincial masseur. This film is for those who want to better orientate themselves in political terminology without applying too much effort. The film is available on YouTube.

8. Piter FM, Oksana Bychkova, 2006

Piter FM, Oksana Bychkova

This light story about romantic attachments and the difficulties of choosing one’s path was well received in Russia. Piter FM is a fresh look at the classical subject of “man meets woman,” an attractive and credible portrayal of St. Petersburg and a compilation of lots of interesting music.

The film is light not only in terms of plot, but also for the vocabulary and expressions used. This is the daily lexicon of modern Russians. Also, after watching the film you will most likely want to buy tickets to St. Petersburg. It is available for free here and here.

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