Veteran filmmaker Andrey Khrzhanovsky's feature debut, A Room and a Half, chronicles the life of Russian poet Joseph Brodsky, following him from childhood through exile, to a fictional voyage back to St. Petersburg in the last years of his life. Told through the eyes of an older, reflective Brodsky (Grigoriy Dityatkovsky), the film functions like a retrospective daydream—some elements clearer than others, some completely fabricated, others nuanced only slightly to fit a narrative. As a result, the film falls somewhere between fact and fiction—as does, perhaps, memory itself.
Artem Smola as a young Joseph Brodsky
in Andrey Khrzhanovsky's A Room and a Half. Courtesy of Seagull Films.
Khrzhanovsky admits that his goal was not to create a biopic; rather, Brodky's life was the "creative impulse" for the film. Drawing heavily on poems spanning Brodsky's career, the film is less concerned with historical accuracy, and more so with the marriage of two artforms: It is Khrzanovsky's cinematic response to Brodsky's verse. As such, A Room and a Half is the heartbreaking story of how a man became a poet.
If the film has a conventional climax, it is perhaps when the young, rebellious and idealistic Brodsky is exiled from his home on charges of social parasitism. In the courtroom, Khrzanovsky uses actual dialogue transcribed during the 1964 trial:
Judge: And what is your profession in general?
Brodsky: Poet translator.
Judge: Who recognized you as a poet? Who enrolled you in the ranks of poets?
Brodsky: No one. And who enrolled me in the ranks of humanity?
Judge: Did you study this?
Judge: To become a poet. You did not try to finish high school where they prepare, where they teach?
Brodsky: I didn't think you could get this from school.
Judge: How then?
Brodsky: I think that it . . . comes from God.
Brodsky is forced to leave the city he knows and loves—"A city whose color was fossilized vodka,"—and finds himself in America, where, 23 years later, he would win the Nobel Prize for Literature, and where, four years after that, he would become Poet Laureate of the United States. In the midst of his glory, however, he is perpetually haunted by memories of a home to which he will never return; a home from which his parents watch him on the news and wait for his infrequent calls, wishing only to see him once more before their death.
A scene from Andrey Khrzhanovsky's A Room and a Half. Courtesy of Seagull Films.
It is not so. But for Brodsky—and for the poet—death is not the end. As he said in his Nobel acceptance speech:
The poet, I wish to repeat, is language's means for existence—or, as my beloved Auden said, he is the one by whom it lives. I who write these lines will cease to be; so will you who read them. But the language in which they are written and in which you read them will remain not merely because language is more lasting than man, but because it is more capable of mutation.
It is this mutation of the poet's undying voice that, pervading A Room and a Half, makes it worthwhile. Indeed, though we are not given a completely factual account of Brodsky's life, we are given his voice, and to hear his poems read aloud, and in their original language at that—in their original rhythms and cadences—is invaluable.