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Is it a black comedy, or is it a tragedy?

Perhaps it is a sign of its quality that one can’t really tell.

Pu-239 was released in 2006. The film was based on a 1999 short story, and was originally shown in the Toronto International Film Festival as The Half Life of Timofey Berezin. Following its positive reception there, HBO picked it up the following year and released it under the films working title, also the title of the short story.

The film follows two characters. One is a technician in a nuclear processing facility who, through the incompetence and malfeasance of the operators of the facility is severely contaminated by a nuclear mishap. The second is a low-level gangster on the streets of Moscow who, through the ignorance of his comrades, takes on a debt to the local crime lord which he is unable to pay. When the two meet, they appear to be perhaps the only way out of each other’s crisis.

The movie gets into the physics of nuclear radiation, and as far as I could tell does so accurately, but it is not a scientific movie. The descriptions of atomic particles are more metaphorical, drawing parallels with the human drama which is occurring. One assumes (again, I haven’t read the short story) that this much was taking from the literary source when the film was created. Likewise, the portrayal of the post-Soviet-collapse Russian society seems pretty spot on, as far as I could tell. But, once again, the focus is not on trying to paint a picture of the time and place.

The story is very vaguely based on actual incidents. The story was set in 1995, and at that time there were several cases of stolen nuclear material from ex-Soviet facilities. Some of the cases were disgruntled workers, and other were just citizens finding themselves in a newly- “captitalist” society and trying to make their fortune (both of which ARE themes of the film). In one incident, some stolen Plutonium was traced to a facility called Arzamas-16 during the Cold War. The town, which did not exist on any map, was the location of a nuclear weapons design facility. Arzamas-16, or sometimes Kremlyov, was renamed Sarov in 1995. As far as I know, the details of the theft were never discovered. The Plutonium was recovered in Munich during attempted sale and was traced back to the Russian facility through its radiological signature.

The city in the movie is called Skotoprigonyevsk-16, which is not a real location. In fact, Skotoprigonyevsk itself is taken from The Brothers Karmazov, where it is revealed (at the very end of the novel) to be the location of “our town.” The name was probably intended to sound “made up” in the Dosotoyevsky and certainly intended to evoke a place apart from the big city (Dosotoyevsky’s St. Petersburg or Pu-239‘s Moscow) – remote, rural, and culturally disconnected. In 1995, the cultural disconnect was between the Soviet hierarchy where scientists and their military research commanded respected and status, and the “New Russian” mobsters who grew instantly rich and became to dominate and, indeed, define modern Russia.

Unlike some of my other recent reviews, this is not a foreign-language production. See the trailer and cover-art, I actually assumed that it was. Although I should have known, the “translated” title is Ru-239 using Cyrillic characters, one of those Hollywood devices that really gets me spun up, although for most of the movie the Russian translations (and the non-Russian actors’ Russian accents) seem quite a bit more authentic. While filmed in Romania, it was obviously intended for the English-speaking consumer. Nonetheless, it is a independent film that, despite critical attention and the backing of HBO (Time Warner), seemed to have mostly slid under the radar.

It’s a shame. This is a fine little story that translates well to the screen. For those that would appreciate it (and it’s not going to appeal to the masses), it will be unfortunately if they never know what they are missing. Even if I don’t know what to call it.