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Review: 'Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer' One of the Most Important Documentaries of the Year

Photo of John Anderson By John Anderson | Thompson on Hollywood June 6, 2013 at 2:25PM

“Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer” may well be the most important doc of the year, despite the fact that its directors never quite get to the point of what the alleged “crimes” were all about: Namely, Vladimir Putin’s co-opting of the Russian Orthodox Church, and the church’s Stockholm Syndrome approach to religious autonomy.
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"Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer"
"Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer"

“Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer” may well be the most important doc of the year, despite the fact that its directors never quite get to the point of what the alleged “crimes” were all about: Namely, Vladimir Putin’s co-opting of the Russian Orthodox Church, and the church’s Stockholm Syndrome approach to religious autonomy. That was why Pussy Riot -- Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Maria Alyokhina and Yekaterina Samutsevich, dressed in pastels and ski masks -- seized the stage, i.e. the altar, of Moscow’s historic Christ the Saviour Cathedral Feb. 21, 2012, writhing, howling vulgarities and generally outraging the pious security personnel, who asked themselves what Jesus would do, and promptly assaulted the band.

Still, directors Mike Lerner and Maxim Pozdorovkin make spectacular use of Russian’s invasive paparazzi-style media freedoms on behalf of their movie, and create of a girl group that might not be the best band in the world, but is certainly the bravest.

Pussy Riot

What Tolokonnikova, Alyokhina and Samutsevich did was an act of conceptual art and political protest against Kirill I, the primate of Russia, who is comfortably in bed with Putin, not that he likely has a lot of choice. Nevertheless, it’s a disgraceful situation, considering how the ROC managed to survive 70 years of atheistic Communism, only to bend over for the same midget bureaucrat who is largely responsible, at the moment, for the fact that Syrians are slaughtering each other.

However: “Pussy Riot” the movie is less interested in the history than the moment. It’s a kinetic, music-driven portrait, showing its subjects defiant in the face of the charges against them, and the farcical trial they’re made to sit through. There’s a lot of appropriately anarchic editing, music-video flourishes and footage of the women’s preparations for their Christ the Saviour “concert.” There are interviews with the women, done after their arrests for “hooliganism” and having violating the “right to worship” of those who were inside the cathedral. Rightly, “Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer” portrays the performance as an act of intellectual pranksterism, but is clear about the meaning of the official response: That it implies a profound insecurity on the part of the Putin regime. The loathing exhibited by anti-Pussy protestors on the Moscow streets  (“Orthodoxy or Death” one T-shirt reads) is troubling, but not a surprise: A key to Putin’s success has been his appeal to the nationalistic instincts of everyday Russians. The members of Pussy Riot are not everyday Russians.

They are, in fact, prisoners -- Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina, anyway (Samutsevich’s sentence was commuted). It’s certainly ironic: What would have been an amusing but ultimately forgettable gesture of protest has been blown up by Putin into an international scandal that serves --- as directors Lerner and Pozdorovkin so deftly demonstrate in their energetic doc – as a symbol of political oppression and creeping government instrusion worldwide. On Wednesday night, a couple of Pussy Riot members who escaped Putin-style “justice” appeared Wednesday at a Lower East Side bookstore, to keep the movement going. We wanted to call for comment, but since we have Verizon, we weren’t sure who might be listening.

"Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer" debuts on HBO on June 10. See the entire Summer Documentary Series lineup here.

This article is related to: Reviews, Pussy Riot - A Punk Prayer, HBO , Reviews


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