Andrey Khrzhanovsky, A Room and a Half, 2009, stills from a color film in 35 mm, 130 minutes. Joseph Brodsky's mother and father (Alisa Freindlikh and Sergey Yurskiy).

MOST MOVIES ABOUT HISTORY—whether personal or social—depict the past as an orderly string of highs and lows, every piece of the puzzle neatly adding up to a whole. But not A Room and a Half, Andrey Khrzhanovsky’s surrealistic half-fictional “autobiography,” which follows in the footsteps of Guy Maddin’s My Winnipeg (2007) and Terence Davies’s Of Time and the City (2008) to suggest that the defining episodes of our experience are less etched in stone than drawn in sand. Realism, one could easily imagine Khrzhanovskiy saying, has no place in tales of memory.

Juggling fiction and nonfiction, Khrzhanovsky, an acclaimed animator, employs archival footage, stills, animation, and scripted dramatic material to tell the life story—and evoke the deep heartache—of Joseph Brodsky, the Russian-Jewish-American poet who was expelled from the USSR in 1972; he subsequently received the Nobel Prize for literature in 1987 and became America’s poet laureate in 1991. Brodsky’s banishment fueled much of his written work, and no doubt fans of the poet will be surprised to find A Room opening with an adult Brodsky (played by Grigoriy Dityatkovskiy) boarding a boat on an imagined sail home to mother Russia. Along the way, the writer recalls his younger days on the streets of Saint Petersburg, a freeform mélange of memories that highlights his formative experiences while also underscoring the ways that fact, fantasy, and nostalgia intertwine.

A young boy fantasizes about a cartoon cat that occasionally takes control of the story in a series of animated vignettes. An older boy, unaware of the anti-Semitism that surrounds him, mourns the loss of the family piano, even as Khrzhanovsky depicts that piano taking flight with all the other instruments that have been discarded by Jews in the city. An adult Brodsky returns to his childhood home and sits down to dinner with his parents—a haunting, fictional event that never actually took place.

Alternating between declarative historical footage that recreates the Russian Jewish struggle of the 1950s and ’60s and ambiguous flights of fancy, Khrzhanovsky subtly obscures the edges between reality and fantasy. What remains is a thoroughly subjective history, molded out of memories that are imprecise, prone to delusions of grandeur. This isn’t Saint Petersburg, but Brodsky’s Saint Petersburg, and this may not be the life Brodsky led, but perhaps it’s the life he felt he led.

A Room and a Half opens January 20 at Film Forum. For more details, click here.

S. James Snyder