Taxi Blues

In a caustic comedy of startling originality, writer and first-time director Pavel Lounguine takes an unblinking look at Moscow in the glasnost era through the antics of Chlykov (Piotr Zaitchenko), an antisemitic Russian cabbie, and Lyosha (Piotr Mamonov), a vodka-swilling Jewish sax player. Done at a high level of imaginative energy — Denis Evstigneev's location camera work is strikingly vivid — the film is the Soviet entry in the foreign-language Oscar sweepstakes.

Lounguine is cynical about Gorbachev's reforms, and his attitude touched a nerve with the Soviet public. His Moscow is a time bomb where neon-lit streets fail to hide the festering discontent. Chlykov moonlights in the black market, selling vodka to Lyosha and his boozing comrades. But when Lyosha stiffs him on a fare, the brutish Chlykov forces him to work off his debt as a servant in Chlykov's cramped, squalid apartment. Many of these scenes are low-comic howls. And Mamonov, a Russian rock star, gives the kind of exuberantly unleashed performance that spells star in any language.

Chlykov — well played by Zaitchenko — grows to like Lyosha. But class divisions, envy and racism make friendship impossible. When Lyosha becomes a star in America, Chlykov feels rejected and vengeful. Lounguine, a Russian Jew, knows how poverty fans the flames of bigotry. With its depiction of intolerance and budding anarchy, Taxi Blues is a true social satire. Its wit is both revealing and wounding.

From The Archives Issue 69: October 29, 1970