Gerard Depardieu, the French actor just awarded Russian citizenship, praised his “special relationship” with Chechen strongman Ramzan Kadyrov as he started filming a movie in the mainly Muslim Russian region.
Depardieu, 64, who is starring in a thriller set in Moscow and Chechnya with U.K. actress and model Elizabeth Hurley, will spend three weeks on location in the once war-torn republic.
“I have recently become a Russian citizen and I am proud of this because I see that in Russia people live very well,” the actor told a news conference in the Chechen capital Grozny yesterday. “I’ve seen a people in the full flower of democracy.”
Kadyrov, 36, is accused by human rights organizations of ordering torture and abductions, charges he denies. The Chechen leader, who has presided over the reconstruction of his southern region, gave Depardieu a luxury high-rise apartment when he visited Grozny earlier this year.
In the film, “Turquoise,” Depardieu plays an ex-convict and art-heist specialist who travels to Moscow to avenge the death of his son at the hand of diamond smugglers and meets his old love, played by Hurley. Some of the action takes place in Grozny and the surrounding countryside.
“The film highlights Moscow’s thriving art scene, seductive nightlife, and stunning architecture,” the synopsis says. “Chechnya’s beautiful natural landscape and extraordinary redevelopment” is seen through the eyes of the hero, it says.
The Franco-Russian actor has just finished “Welcome to New York,” a movie directed by Abel Ferrara based on the 2011 arrest on rape charges of former International Monetary Fund head Dominique Strauss-Kahn.
Depardieu, who fled France to avoid taxes imposed on the wealthy by Socialist President Francois Hollande, dined with President Vladimir Putin in the Black Sea resort of Sochi in January after receiving his new citizenship.
“I have come to Russia because Putin is a democrat,” he said in Grozny.
Depardieu has also been given an apartment about 600 kilometers east of Moscow, in Saransk, the capital of Mordovia, a region known during Soviet dictator Josef Stalin’s reign for its network of labor camps.
Hurley, 47, the former partner of British actor Hugh Grant and a model for Estee Lauder, said that “at first I had to take a very deep breath” when French director Philippe Martinez told her the film would be partly shot in Chechnya.
“I realized it was a very good opportunity for me,” she told the news conference, “to come to a part of the world that I wouldn’t necessarily have expected to visit at this time.”
Putin groomed Kadyrov to lead Chechnya after his father Akhmad died in a bomb attack in 2004. Tens of thousands of people were killed and forced to flee their homes during two 1990s separatist wars. Grozny, which was almost reduced to rubble, is now a city of gleaming new buildings, including luxury high-rises.
Frenchman Arnaud Frilley, who produced Depardieu’s 2011 picture about Grigory Rasputin, the peasant mystic with a hold over Russia’s last royal family, is producing this one, too.
Depardieu wrote in an open letter to French Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault published in the French weekly Journal du Dimanche in December that he would leave the country because his tax rate had hit 85 percent. He bought a home and applied for citizenship in Belgium before Putin made him a citizen of Russia, where the tax rate is a flat 13 percent.
A month later, he travelled to Chechnya, where he agreed with Kadyrov to make a film in the region. Kadyrov, who vetted the script, insisted there should be “no violence against women,” Depardieu said. The movie was partly Russian-financed.
Journalist Anna Politkovskaya, who criticized Putin’s efforts to pacify Chechnya by force and accused Kadyrov’s security force of abuses, was murdered in 2006 in Moscow. Kadyrov has said he would welcome punishment of her killers.
“Depardieu stopped being just a Frenchman a long time ago -- he belongs to the entire planet,” Chechen parliament speaker Dukuvakha Abdurakhmanov said in an interview. “So I’m glad he accepted our invitation, all Chechens are happy about that.
“There is a friendship between our national leader and Depardieu: Vladimir Putin, Ramzan Kadyrov and Gerard Depardieu - - these are unique figures, and the fact that they meet and share their views of what the world should be like is in the interests of the friendship, tolerance and unity of the peoples,” he said.
Tanya Lokshina, a researcher for New York-based Human Rights Watch who tracks abuses in Chechnya, said if Depardieu had accepted money from Kadyrov for the film, that wouldn’t be “a good idea.”
“Law enforcement agencies operating under the de facto control of Kadyrov are involved in disappearances and torture,” she said. “Kadyrov operates Chechnya as a private empire.”
Depardieu compared Putin to the late Pope John Paul II in an interview with Russian newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda published last week.
“For me he’s like (late French President) Francois Mitterrand or Pope John Paul II,” Depardieu said.
The actor’s ties to Putin and Kadyrov are normal for someone of his stature, said the film’s producer, Frilley. “He’s met dozens if not hundreds of presidents,” he told reporters today.
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