For those who can’t abide conventional biopics, here’s a viable alternative: A Room And A Half, a fantastical, imaginative depiction of the life of Nobel-winning Russian poet Joseph Brodsky, assembled over the better part of a decade by animator Andrey Khrzhanovsky. A Room And A Half covers the Brodsky basics: How he was born in 1940 to a Jewish family in Leningrad, how he became so infatuated with art and culture that he was banished to Siberia for “parasitism” in the ’60s, how he was kicked out of the country in the ’70s, and how he emigrated to the United States, where he spent the next 20 years teaching, writing, and winning awards. But Khrzhanovsky frames the story as fiction, by imagining Brodsky returning home before his death in 1996, and using that trip—which never happened—to contrast the post-Soviet era to Brodsky’s squalid-but-happy young adulthood.
A Room And A Half combines file footage, still photographs, reenactments, and varying styles of animation to evoke Brodsky. Rather than stitching together one connected, continuous narrative, Khrzhanovsky skips around from memory to memory, almost as though we were making an anthology of short films based on Brodsky. (The movie is definitely more Annie Hall than Ray.) Khrzhanovsky’s tone is too whimsical at times, and his points about repression too leaden, but that often happens when a cartoonist dabbles in live-action. Anyway, Khrzhanovsky’s approach improves the material far more than it hinders. A Room And A Half is full of memorable images and moments, from young Brodsky entering a magazine filled with pictures of banquets to him watching orchestra instruments float out of Leningrad as the government de-emphasizes the arts. And when Khrzhanovsky has his fictional Brodsky return home, he conveys how a city of cell-phone users and overflowing Dumpsters might’ve looked to a man who used to hoard Life magazines, and who used to spend hours listening to birds because they were one source of music that the party couldn’t suppress.