Set in the underground music scene of a pre-perestroika, early 1980s Leningrad, the featherlight plot (by the director, Kirill Serebrennikov, and several others) drifts hither and yon. Caught at the crossroads of rock, punk and New Wave, Mike (Roman Bilyk) and his band inhale Bowie and Iggy Pop, spitting out their own compositions in a cavernous club where lyrics must be preapproved by a Party official.
Political oppression, though, is merely background punctuation, less important than the smuggled Western albums that cram the movie’s living spaces. When Mike meets Viktor (Teo Yoo) — younger, sexier, wildly talented — and decides to mentor him, his generosity seems in agreement with a friend’s belief that Mike is “too well-adjusted” to be an authentic rock musician. Viktor certainly seems hungrier, which is perhaps why Mike’s wife, the doll-faced Natasha (Irina Starshenbaum), very badly wants to kiss him.
Weaving a glancing love triangle into a poignant observation on the waxing and waning of creativity, Serebrennikov revels in radiant black-and-white scenes of urban grit. The vibe veers from grungy to blissful, the characters’ earnest charisma serving as the movie’s force field against criticism. Periodically, musical fantasy sequences in flashing color intrude; but “Leto” is mostly a gentle mood piece, a snapshot of a time when music offered a gateway to a world without constraints or compromises.
To Mike and Viktor, life was simple: They played in a band, they walked on a beach, they kissed a girl. And they dreamed.