Moscow on the Hudson (1984)

Moscow on the Hudson (1984), written, produced and directed by Paul Mazursky.

I remember when this was new but I don't recall seeing it apart from some clips. I was expecting a satirical comedy of some sort, but it is actually a warm-hearted, poignant celebration of the immigrant experience.

The scenes of the mass citizenship swearing-in ceremony and a dispute in a diner are like something from a Capra movie, or a patriotic painting by Norman Rockwell: land of immigrants, seeking the America of their dreams. A film like De Palma's Scarface (1983) is about immigrant rage; this is about their hope and optimism.

We open in the dour, oppressive Soviet Union. Vlad is a saxophonist who worships American jazz ("made by beautiful black people", he says) but who works in a circus band. He has to protect his crazy grandfather from the KGB; the old man is always yelling dissident slogans.

Vlad's best friend is a circus clown with the soul of a poet who dreams of freedom and defecting to America. In a bitter development, he lacks the courage to actually do it when given the chance.

(By the way: clown Elya Baskin and KGB monitors Saveliy Kramarov and Oleg Rudnik were all in 2010 (1984). A good year for Russian emigres in the movies).

When the circus visits New York City, Vlad -- without warning -- defects in a department store, a hilarious scene. Everyone is kind to him and defends him against his Russian minders. He is taken home by a security guard and becomes part of that family, which is configured exactly like his Russian family.

I wonder now: was his defection a spontaneous decision or had he planned it? He was always resisting any sort of talk of disloyalty or defection, but that would be smart, right?

Robin Williams is just superb in this role. We are familiar with the sad clown or the comedian who is crying on the inside, but he brings much more than that. Life pushes down on him but his joy is always ready to break out.

Williams learned Russian and the saxophone for the role, although none of his playing is used in the film. Dustin Hoffman, Richard Dreyfus and Yakov Smirnoff were all considered for the lead.

MarĂ­a Conchita Alonso, in her first film role, sparkles as his new girlfriend. She has her own conflicted character development: after taking her citizenship oath she becomes dissatisfied with Vlad. "I get it," he says. "You want a real American. Robert Redford maybe?"

Alonso was born in Cuba, raised in Venezuela and plays Italian here.

Photographed by Donald M. McAlpine -- Clear and Present Danger (1994), Patriot Games (1992), Predator (1987).

Available on Blu-ray from Twilight Time. Lovely natural image. Two commentary tracks:

Redman, an immigrant himself, says that America does make you "harder". The dream is of a place where you can better yourself, but this necessarily means striving and competition, getting tougher.