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Like The Thief (1997), which was also nominated for a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, Regis Wargnier's East-West is a turbulent romance set against the political backdrop of post-World War II Russia. But instead of a man, a woman, and a child, the story revolves around a man, a woman, a child--and another man.
Shortly after the war, Alexei (Oleg Menshikov), his wife, Marie (Sandrine Bonnaire), and their son travel to Russia from France to make a new life for themselves. But they quickly find that the situation in Alexei's homeland isn't quite as advertised and that they can't leave. Sacha (Sergie Bodrov Jr.) is a young athlete who lives in the same overcrowded apartment complex. Like Marie, he wants to escape, while Alexei decides to make the best out of an awful situation. Inevitably, Marie and Alexei grow apart as Sacha and Marie grow close, but one of these characters is harboring a secret that won't be revealed until the end. The film does double time as a thriller in that, at any time, any of these characters could be imprisoned or killed--including French actress Gabrielle (Catherine Deneuve, star of Wargnier's Oscar winning Indochine). She befriends Marie during a tour of Russia and offers to help her and Sacha make their getaway.
At its worst, East-West threatens to strain credibility, but Wargnier's assured direction and the sympathetic performances he elicits from his cast make for a believable and compelling drama. Although not an epic on the scale of Doctor Zhivago, Wargnier takes a more intimate approach to similar subject matter and, arguably, offers the superior bittersweet conclusion. --Kathy Fennessy
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