MOSCOW – Out on DVD for Valentine's Day across Russia is a heartwarming drama about a man and a woman who love each other and their country — and who bear an uncanny resemblance to Vladimir Putin and his wife, Lyudmila.
Just when it seemed like the Russian president's public image had been burnished to a spotless shine by state television, along comes a film that appears to cast the steely former spy in a softer light — as smitten suitor, loving husband and dedicated dad.
While acknowledging "many similarities" with Putin, producer Anatoly Voropayev coyly claims the lead character in "The Kiss is Off the Record" is based on a "collective image," not the president himself.
"We believe that since today we are not ashamed of our leader, why not make heroes who are like him?" Voropayev told The Associated Press.
The film appears designed to fill a gap in the hagiography of the popular president by providing an inspirational back story for his rise to the Kremlin.
Its nationwide release Thursday on DVD comes 17 days before of the election of his successor, at a time of uncertainty about Putin's future role.
"It's a film about the life of a politician, about love, about people in general and the human relationships every person has," Voropayev told Ekho Moskvy radio last week.
Few people, however, have so much in common with Putin.
Like Putin, the main character courts his wife-to-be in Leningrad, now St. Petersburg, and moves with her to Cold War East Germany — where Putin was a KGB officer. He then returns home for a stint in St. Petersburg and scales the heights of power in Moscow.
The character, Alexander Alexandrovich Platov, has more hair than Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin, but the style is the same. Seen from behind on the promotional poster, the actor playing Platov is a dead ringer for the Russian president.
Another giveaway: Platov, like Putin, is always late.
Few of the people who packed a special screening at a central Moscow movie house Monday night were in doubt about the subject of the film, which will not be released in cinemas.
Natalia Serebrovskaya, who attended the showing, knew Putin from his days in St. Petersburg and said that she recognized the president's speech and gait.
Some opposition activists disrupted the viewing with shouts of "Putin's an executioner!" and unfurled a banner from the balcony that read: "Putin is a criminal." Film critics alternately lambasted it as crude propaganda and sniffed it's so bad it couldn't have been commissioned by the Kremlin — too embarrassing.
Over the past eight years, the Kremlin has spent a lot of effort promoting images of Putin in his public role as a decisive, stalwart and indomitable leader. Television viewers see him almost every night — flying in a jet fighter, speaking in ornate Kremlin halls, chewing out Cabinet ministers.
But little is known of his private life. He seems to talk about his dog more than about his family. His daughters' lives are nearly invisible.
First lady Lyudmila Putin is rarely seen, even more rarely heard. Putin often travels without her, and she appears uncomfortable in front of cameras.
"The Kiss is Off the Record" changes all that. The daughters are prominent, and Platov's wife, Tatyana, is in focus as much if not more than her husband.
As a family man, the hero is a mixture of regular guy and miracle worker.
He sometimes has trouble juggling his family obligations and the demands of his high-pressure job. But he's always there when it counts, helping his wife walk again after a car crash and rescuing the girls from a burning dacha.
There's even a bedroom scene. And Platov appears faithful: When the limping Tatyana sits up one night fearing the worst, he returns with flowers and a cane that he spent hours seeking out.
"My view of the president has changed," said Galina Makarova, a film company employee, after attending the showing. "It shows a new side of our president."
The film's timing has raised eyebrows. Shot in 2002 and 2003, it is being released ahead of the March 2 election, when Russia is expected to ratify Putin's choice of a successor, First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev.
Putin must step down in May, but has said he would accept Medvedev's offer to serve as prime minister — a switch that would leave him in the thick of politics and poised for a return to the presidency.
Voropayev told The Associated Press that he neither sought nor received Kremlin approval for the release — a statement few government critics would believe. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Putin's administration "had nothing to do with the film."
Denis Fadeyev, a 30-year-old businessman, liked the movie. But he said that if it was meant to benefit Putin, it was too late.
"We're more interested in Medvedev now," he said.