In the world of "The Russian Woodpecker," South Milwaukee native Chad Gracia’s delirium-fueled documentary about Ukraine and its precarious relationship with its overlording Soviet father, the only sane thing to do is to go a little crazy. How else are you to exist in a place where the truth is composed of lies, where ghosts, both living and dead, still deeply haunt and mile-tall mysteries stand in plain sight but gone uninvestigated?
The answers to those questions are nowhere to be particularly found in "The Russian Woodpecker," but in the hands of Gracia and his charismatically kooky protagonist, the mere act of asking paints a fascinating and eerily paranoid portrait of a country and a people still suffocating under an iron curtain.
Gracia’s lead investigator is Fedor Alexandrovich, a Ukrainian performance artist with a wild mane – he wouldn’t look out of place in a Tolkien adventure – and an even wilder imagination. His crazed mind’s main preoccupation is the Chernobyl disaster, one that Fedor survived but left him irradiated – and one he’s convinced was the result of a larger conspiracy and crime perpetrated by the Soviet government.
Fedor’s investigation quickly points him slightly north from the graveyard of Chernobyl toward a massive antenna structure, a Cold War relic nicknamed The Russian Woodpecker for the ominous pecking sound it sent across global radio waves. What those clicks did, no one seems sure – some old TV news reports hypothesize it’s a behavior modulator, turning Americans into essentially Soviet zombies.
No matter the case, Fedor is positive its looming, shadowy presence is linked to the incident that destroyed and killed his hometown. In the words of the film’s cinematographer Artem – who himself winds sucked up into the paranoia and onto the frontlines – half of his friends think Fedor is insane; the other half thinks he’s a genius.
Viewers will likely split equally Fedor’s theories, but either way, Fedor makes it hard not to get magnetized by him and his raving world of fear and conspiracy. He’s a fascinating and rich character, one that seems both childishly naïve and incredibly clear-eyed, lightheartedly goofy and sorrowfully tragic.
His contagious enthusiasm – you can almost always see his eyes and thoughts sprinting ahead to put pieces together – doesn’t just fuel the investigation; it fuels "The Russian Woodpecker," both in its story and its eerily dreamy asides. It says a lot that when a late development seems to crush that, the moment hits like a gut punch. He’s a completely compelling figure and, through his work and his haunted dream sequences, a perfect window into Ukraine’s Soviet-addled national psyche.
Gracia’s film ends up trying to tackle a lot, from Fedor to the conspiracy to Chernobyl to the Woodpecker to the eventual Ukrainian revolution that breaks out near the end – and almost kills one of the characters – to merely catching up the crowd on the history that got us here. The result is far from tidy, and you can almost feel the story pressuring the sides of the screen trying to get all of these essential and intriguing elements packed into a single movie.
"The Russian Woodpecker" isn’t a smooth juggling act, but it’s never stops being an engaging one. For instance, the revolution footage is a touch disconnected, but it makes for such an amazing on-the-ground historical document of a country in chaos and brief backdrop for Fedor that you’d be more upset if it didn’t make the cut. And even with all of its branching parts and little quirks, Gracia keeps the film moving and the intrigue coming, mostly thanks to his star and the uneasy haze clouding around the conspiracy, one that seemingly envelops the theater.
Whether it’s Fedor’s nightmares – featuring the plastic-wrapped artist slowly walking through the graveyard of Chernobyl guided by flame to the Woodpecker – or simply Fedor loitering around the ominous, clicking iron monolith, Gracia gets unease to ooze off the movie, capturing a world created and lorded by shadows. The movie is effectively distrustful and paranoid – of the past, of the Russian government and even of its own participants, as the leads all wind up secretly recording one another. It summons shivers – even when you’re not sure why.
As for answers, "The Russian Woodpecker" doesn’t put forward anything resembling real or particularly viable proof. Gracia never puts much weight into any of the "evidence" Fedor discovers throughout the investigation – and there’s really not a lot of it presented in the first place. The conspiracy starts a little cracked, and by the end, even with Fedor giving it more power, it never adds up to anything much more than that.
But even if the case is never really worth buying, like a real life Soviet cousin to Oliver Stone’s "JFK," the feelings and unnerving mood presented are. That’s what’s effectively creepy about "The Russian Woodpecker" – not that it convinces you such an unhinged and unbelievable theory is true (because it won’t) but that it convincingly captures and presents a place so distrustful and paranoid that such an unhinged and unbelievable theory could even be considered possible.
"The Russian Woodpecker": ***
"The Russian Woodpecker" shows at the Milwaukee Film Festival on Sunday, Sept. 27 at 4 p.m. at the Avalon Theater.
As much as it is a gigantic cliché to say that one has always had a passion for film, Matt Mueller has always had a passion for film. Whether it was bringing in the latest movie reviews for his first grade show-and-tell or writing film reviews for the St. Norbert College Times as a high school student, Matt is way too obsessed with movies for his own good.
When he's not writing about the latest blockbuster or talking much too glowingly about "Piranha 3D," Matt can probably be found watching literally any sport (minus cricket) or working at - get this - a local movie theater. Or watching a movie. Yeah, he's probably watching a movie.