Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer Review

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movies:
Jordan Adler

Reviewed by:
Rating:
3
On February 19, 2014
Last modified:February 19, 2014

Summary:

Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer is a solid but unfortunately slight look at some of culture’s most fascinating provocateurs.

Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer Review

It’s hard to resist the name Pussy Riot, boasting a provocatively coy blend of sensuality and anger, but some people still find it too inflammatory. Russian President Vladimir Putin is evidently one of those people, given how noticeably he recoils in an interview when asked to discuss the “disgusting” name. While it would make sense for a governing authority like Putin to fear a band with the word “riot” in its name – especially one that has no problem emasculating the president in their own punk anthems – it is amusing to watch him clench up as he approaches the word “pussy.” Way to “pussy-foot” around something so insignificant, Mr. Putin.

Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer, timed for a theatrical and DVD release during Russian Olympic fervor (and furor), is a documentary about three members of the feminist punk outlet who became international icons after authorities detained them after a performance stunt. The three women – Nadia Tolokonnikova, Masha Alyokhina and Katya Samutsevich – became global symbols of Russian intolerance in the era of Putin.

For those of us who need a refresher, on February 21, 2012, Nadia, Masha and Katya went inside the Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow, the holiest site for the Russian Orthodox Church, wearing balaclavas and dresses that revealed their bare shoulders. In their bright get-ups, they looked more like the cast of Spring Breakers than a government threat. However, within seconds of beginning one of their angry anthems, security detained the women. The Pussy Riot members were then arrested for committing an act of “hooliganism” that later became known as their “Punk Prayer.”

The act was a political one, as the girls aimed to call attention to the close ties between Russian Orthodoxy and the government. Nadia says she has resisted the patriarchy’s order for women to be mothers and does not want to succumb to the pressure to find a man and raise children. To have a woman occupy the altar at such a holy site is an act of political defiance, they explain.

Directors Mike Lerner and Maxim Pozdorovkin like to use regal images of Putin walking into palace-like buildings to mass applause and juxtapose it with the women of Pussy Riot practicing in cheap, dingy apartments. It is an obvious but telling visual opposition. The title, A Punk Prayer, is also meant as a binary between two kinds of art; as the film expresses, though, only one is possible to thrive underneath a repressive political regime.

The most fascinating segments of the film feature close family members talking about the three girls on trial, examining how their ideologies as young girls would end up coloring their decision to become a part of such a raw, riveting band years later. Nadia’s mother had Communist roots, while Nadia herself was also an engaged performance artist, partaking in an eyebrow-raising orgy act at a biology museum in Russia. As a young student, Masha fought for her peers who got poor grades undeservedly, and later became an environmental activist. Katya lived a regular middle-class life but learned about culture and history from books and revolutionary publications that her artist mother gave her.

Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer Review

Alongside protests demanding that Pussy Riot be freed from custody, the film also shows quieter Orthodox Church demonstrations. During those demonstrations, citizens explain that people who carried out a sacrilegious act centuries earlier would be burned and hanged. They march for the sanctity of Russia, but it is a different sanctity of Mother Russia than Pussy Riot wants. Lerner and Pozdorovkin’s doc gains credibility by showing this balance without demonizing the Church followers too much.

At one point near the end, Nadia points at the press filming her and her convicted band-mates behind the glass barrier in the courthouse. “They should film us when we’re saying something, not when we’re sitting here like lambs,” she says. This sentence reflects the biggest problem with Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer. The doc needed to spend more time with the enraged rebels with a cause and less with the opinions of lawmakers and government leaders who clearly oppose the group.

The action turns stale when the directors focus on lawyers and policymakers discussing the details of the crime and the lengthy trial. I had hoped that Lerner and Pozdorovkin would spend more time with the Pussy Riot members, with their masks off and their hearts on their sleeves; their statements behind glass barriers in the courtroom speak with mesmerizing volume. The film could have been more gripping by placing greater emphasis on the personal lives of these vibrant, remarkable women. Unfortunately, it gets bogged down examining the technical aspects of their trial.

Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer opens, quite boldly, with a Brecht quote: “Art is not a mirror to reflect the world but a hammer with which to shape it.” As a documentary, it is not quite as cutting as the band it explores. Lerner and Pozdorovkin do give an illuminating glimpse into three of the major voices behind one of music’s most provocative groups – but the glimpse ends up being strangely limited. It’s not a great documentary, but given the vitality and vibrancy of its subjects, as well as the prescience of Russian intolerance during the Sochi Olympics, it’s just good enough to recommend.

Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer Review
Fair

Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer is a solid but unfortunately slight look at some of culture’s most fascinating provocateurs.

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