Category Archives: Russian

The Cranes are Flying (1957)

“Give me something I will always remember.”

If you are in the mood for Soviet cinema, then go grab a copy of the 1957 film The Cranes are Flying (Letyat Zhuravli). It really doesn’t get much better than this eloquent touching film from director Mikhail Kalatozov. The story focuses on the impact of war on two young lovers, Veronika (Tatyana Samojlova) and Boris (Aleksey Batalov).

The film begins with the lovers enjoying the last moments of the afternoon together as they walk beside the banks of a river. As is typical with lovers, Boris and Veronika focus on the wonder of being in each other’s company, but they also find joy in nature–cranes flying overhead in a v-shaped formation. They part, eagerly counting the moments until the next encounter, and Boris heads off to his night-shift job at the local factory while Veronika dashes home.

From this point, things begin to go downhill for Veronika. Boris has secretly enlisted in the army with his friend, Stepan (Valentin Zubkov). Like many young men who respond to the call for volunteers, Boris doesn’t want to ‘miss’ the opportunity. He imagines that he will leave some time in the misty future, and so both he and Veronika are stunned when Germany invades and the volunteers are ordered to report for duty the next day.

The next day is Veronika’s birthday and she’s still reeling from the news that Boris enlisted without telling her. Feeling hurt and betrayed, she refuses to spend Boris’s last evening with him, but Boris leaves her a birthday present to be delivered after he leaves. Boris tells his family, his physician father Fyodor (Vasili Merkuryev), his practical sister, Irina (Svetlana Kharitonova) and his cousin Mark (Aleksandr Shvorin) to take care of Veronika if she should need help.

At this point, the film enters some sentimental territory which is ameliorated by some ambiguities in the plot. While this is a wonderful film and can easily be judged on its own merit, it’s interesting to note some of the subtle undercurrents in the film’s dialogue. Boris’s father, Fyodor is the film’s moral centre, and he’s distressed when his son volunteers. The scene involving the factory workers’ send-off to Boris includes a speech that would have been unacceptable a few years before. Two young girls from the factory arrive at Boris’s home to give him the hero’s send off, but their speech is preempted by Fyodor who announces for them:   “and we at the plant will meet and exceed our production quotas.” The two young, eager girls are flummoxed by Fyodor’s behaviour. He’s taken the wind out of their sails, but Fyodor is too generous a human being to continue making fun of the girls’ mission, and Boris’s last evening is spent in celebration.

In another scene, Fyodor, a widely respected physician is approached by a slimy party member who wants to use the ambulance for his own sleazy purposes. The man completely mis-understands Fyodor and thinks he’s corrupted (and corruptible).  The film subtly notes the man’s shift in tone and body langauge when he realizes that the doctor isn’t just another corrupt human being after all.

The Cranes are Flying is an incredibly touching film which also explores the issue of the loyalty of Soviet women while their men served at the front. The themes of grief and patriotism are overwhelmed in the film’s superb finale which takes place at the train station. The key, of course, is forgiveness; I won’t give too much away here, but bottom line, this is an exquisite film.

The film’s director Mikhail Kalatozov and the cinematographer Sergei Urusevsky also made the stunningly beautiful film I am Cuba in 1964. Urusevsky’s skill with the camera is apparent in the very first scene of The Cranes are Flying, and he shoots the same location several times throughout the film. In this fashion, the landscape becomes a sort of character as events take their toll not just on the people but on the country too. Another scene takes place at Fyodor’s home and one shot takes in the entire family as they all sit around the table. The camera’s placement effectively makes us the invisible guest at the table, and indeed this sort of intimate mood is present throughout the film.


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Bread, Gold, Gun (1980)

“I don’t give a shit for your views and beliefs.”

The title of this Soviet film Bread, Gold, Gun (Khleb, Zoloto, Nagan) just about covers what happens in this action-packed adventure set during the Civil War era. I’ve come across a couple of Soviet films to date that depict the same scenario–a race against time to deliver gold (sometimes stolen) to the beleaguered Bolshevik forces so that they can win the day and beat the forces of the White Russians. Add this film to the sub-genre. I expect it has a name, but for the purposes of this blog, I am going to name this the Bolshie-Banditry sub-genre.

Ok, here’s the premise. Loyal Bolshevik party member and Moscow orphanage director, Olga obviously a formerly pampered member of the privileged classes, is given an assignment to deliver 3 sacks of grain to the starving children under her care back in Moscow. A sailor, Sasha,  is ordered to accompany Olga on her mission. He’s more than a bit resentful at having to guard a young bourgeois and he initially sees his role as a servant or underling and this makes him taciturn and uncooperative. As the two suffer through a series of hardships, they form a bound which acknowledges their shared morality and political goals.

At the same time, a Chekist officer is given three gold bars to deliver to the Bolsheviks. This gold will, of course, determine the outcome of the civil war.

All the characters converge on a train station as they try to make a connection to Moscow, but here they are ambushed by a sneaky party of Whites. The Chekist is killed but he hands over the bullion to stationmaster Zaytsev. Olga, Sasha, and Zaytsev are joined in their escape from the train station by another Chekist officer, the steely-eyed Gorbach. At first they seem to be safe, but then they run slap bang into a nest of bandits.

We really had a lot of fun with this film. For some reason, these Bolshie-Bandit films have the air of a spaghetti western. In one scene for example, as the four characters flee from the train station, the bandits appear up on top of a hill. Remember how the Indians would always appear on the hill and look down on the wagon train? Well the same moment occurs here. Also in a later part of the film there’s a long back and forth chase sequence through a small narrow village with the Reds in a car and the Whites on horseback. I’m telling you, it’s just like one of those old cowboy and indian films. The only thing that’s missing is John Wayne. Instead we get a sort of John Wayne–except here he’s a narrow-eyed, cool customer who’s the Chekist Gorbach, and of course he’s the hero of the film. 

Some of the film’s very best scenes occur in the bandit lair. The Whites are not portrayed altogether unsympathetically but when it comes to heroics, no one comes close to the cold steely courage of the Chekist officer–a man the chief bandit describes as a psycho. But in spite of the Chekist heroics, Arkady the bandit leader steals the film. He displays a fastidiousness that is diametrically opposed to his sadistic behaviour, and of course his amorality and love for money is also seen in contrast to those willing to die for their respective causes.

One of the things I enjoyed about this escapist film is that its romanticism is found in the tale itself and in the sacrifices the characters make for each other–not in some drippy smoochy scenes. Great stuff!

From director Samvel Gasparov

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Autumn Marathon (1979)

“I’m not a talented man. I just translate talented writers.”

Set in Leningrad, Autum Marathon (Osenniy Marafon) is touted as a sad-comedy. It’s the story of translator and lecturer Andrei Pavlovich Buzykin (Oleg Basilashvili), a middle-aged man who’s caught between two women. Andrei is married to Nina (Natalya Gundareva) but locked into a passionate affair with typist Alla (Marina Neyolova). When the film begins, Andrei is busy juggling his affair and his marriage while satisfying the demands of his wife, his mistress, and his career. On top of that, he is hosting a Danish professor, Bill who’s there to work on Russian translations and learn about Soviet culture at the same time.

As the story continues, Andrei finds himself in hot water with his mistress, his wife, and his publisher. Trying to keep both women happy, Andrei passes off a number of increasingly thin lies, and on some occasions, he even tells both women the same lies. There are tense scenes with Nina and the poisonous undertones at the dinner table, and these moments are contrasted with petulance and stone silence from Andrei’s mistress. With Alla pressuring Andrei for marriage, Nina unable to believe Andrei’s pathetic lies, and his publisher warning him to “stop chasing women,” the tense domestic situation reaches a crescendo.

Autumn Marathon is an enjoyable look at a very familiar story. Andrei, who is unhappy with either his wife or his existence, finds some solace in the arms of his mistress, and yet he’s loath to take the final step of breaking away from Nina completely and seeking a divorce. One of the funniest scenes takes place when Alla produces an expensive jacket that she insists Andrei wear home because she wants him to look “modern.” He explains that he cannot just show up in his apartment in a brand new jacket as his wife will be suspicious. Andrei is nagged into accepting the jacket and then must suffer the consequences when Nina sets eyes on it.

One of the interesting things about Autumn Marathon is while the film is ostensibly about a love triangle, the plot shows that the affair is just a symptom of Andrei’s characters flaws. Andrei’s biggest underlying problem is that he’s a push over, and it’s because of this huge character flaw that Andrei finds himself in a state of limbo, unable to make a decision and stuck between Nina and Alla. This character flaw is explored by views of Andrei’s other relationships–relationships in which he cannot set boundaries. Pushy obnoxious neighbour Vasili (Evgeni Leonov), a man who insists that Andrei & Bill go mushroom gathering manages to cause immense trouble with a bottle of vodka. And then there’s a fired teacher, Varvara (Galina Volchek), a woman who begs for Andrei’s help. Andrei cannot refuse Varvara–the word No does not exist in his vocabulary. And this relationship with Varvara brings the final blow to Andrei’s life. This is not a relatively simple matter of  a man who cannot chose between two women–Andrei is a man who cannot decide anything.  His life is totally out of control and under assault from forces that he is unable to harness. From director Georgi Daneliy

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The Vanished Empire (2008)

“Do you know how much Bulgakov is on the black market?”

The Vanished Empire (Ischeznuvshaya Imperiya) from director Karen Shakhnazarov was just released by Kino. Don’t get me started on the fact that most Russian films don’t even make it to distribution in America–so good for Kino for selecting this excellent title. I don’t know who picked this one for Kino, but they have a few Russian titles to their name and they’ve all been choice films.

The Vanished Empire is a coming-of-age drama set in Moscow of the 70s. It’s the twilight of the Soviet era, and things are changing, but not soon enough for the troubled young protagonist, 18-year-old student Sergei Narbekov (Aleksandr Lyapin). Sergei lives with his middle-aged divorced mother (Olga Tumajkina), his once-famous archeologist grandfather (Armen Dzhigarkhanyan) and his younger brother. In many ways Sergei is a very typical teenager. He hasn’t yet worked out what he wants to do with the rest of his life, and he doesn’t really understand himself well. Now he’s landed in college, but he’s only got eyes for the other girls in the lecture rooms. Sergei coasts along, stealing books for his grandfather’s collection and selling them cheap to a Moscow book seller–no questions asked. The money Serge squeezes from these shady transactions is ploughed into Western goods–jeans and Stones and Pink Floyd records furtively bought from black market hustlers. His lack of interest in his college lectures is not political and his inattentiveness springs from boredom more than anything else. But Sergei is also directionless and subject to whims and impulses.

While Sergei’s mother worries about her son and the moral implications of his actions, Sergei’s tolerant grandfather’s attitude is different. He turns a blind eye to his grandson’s pilfering and when confronted with the proceeds, he appears to find pleasure in the fact that Sergei is getting some use from the mountains of books that crowd their tiny Moscow apartment. Meanwhile Sergei’s mother has worries of her own–she’s meeting a man on the sly.

Sergei hangs out with two friends, Stepan (Yegor Baranovsky) andKostya (Ivan Kupreyenko) the privileged son of a diplomat, but these friendships are interrupted when Sergei meets Lyuda (Lidiya Milyuzina), an attractive, sincere student. As Sergei stretches to impress Lyuda, there’s the implied sense that this relationship will affect him deeply. On one hand, Lyuda seems the sort of girl who may help stabilize Sergei’s somewhat morally fuzzy character, but on the other hand, will he be able to live up to her expectations?

There’s one scene when Sergei visit’s Lyuda’s apartment and he marvels at the books on the shelves. Lyuda’s mother offers to lend him a book, and he takes it away. Given that we’ve already seen him smuggle out his grandfather’s books and sell them in exchange for western trinkets, this scene subtly poses the question, what will Sergei do with the book? Is he taking the book simply to please Lyuda’s mother, or will he have it evaluated and sell it? It’s this sort of scene that makes this seemingly simple drama so intense. Sergei is making choices that will determine the outcome of the rest of his life, and unfortunately he doesn’t realize the stakes. At one point for example, after completely alienating Lyuda, he has one chance to win her back, and once again Sergei doesn’t really understand the choices he’s about to make….

While the film examines the turning points in Sergei’s life, it’s impossible to escape the film’s meta meaning. Sergei’s family unit is composed of three generations–a pre-revolutionary grandfather, his mother, a pure soviet woman, and Sergei, a young man on the brink of change. Those changes are of course mirrored by the changes about to sweep over the Soviet Union. The lectures on Soviet ideology no longer hold the students’ attention at the university, and even the attempts to stamp out black marketeers are tepid. There’s no energy left in the Soviet system; it’s effectively burned itself out.

The idea of lost civilisations is implicit throughout the film, and these scenes underscore the impermanence of life and the paradoxical desire of humans to leave some sort of monument to our existence.  At one point, for example, one of Sergei’s more intense teachers drags the class off to an excursion to the Black Sea to gather folklore before it disappears from view. This excavation of history is then continued when Sergei takes a journey to Khorezm, the City of the Winds, the meeting place of his parents. There standing in what constitutes the village square, he sees a statue of Marx, a long-lost relic of the Soviet Union. Can anyone in that village identify that statue? Do any of the villagers know who Marx is? Just as we see the dust and magnificent ruins of Khorezm that hint of a marvelous long vanished empire, we also witness the figurative ruins, the twilight of the Soviet Union: the disinterested youth who are bored by communist party history and who yearn for black market goods, and a long forgotten statue of Marx standing in a corner of what was the Khorezm Socialist Soviet Republic.

Touted as a coming-of-age tale, The Vanished Empire is ultimately a touching, affecting, and very accessible  film.

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The Childhood of Maxim Gorky (1938)

“You’ll have a hard life, but don’t surrender to anyone.”

The Childhood of Maxim Gorky (Detstvo Gorkogo) was released in 1938, Gorky (whose real name was Peshkov), the man on whose life (and books) the film is based died two years earlier. The Childhood of Maxim Gorky is the first of a trilogy (the other two titles are My Apprenticeships, & My Universities) all directed by Mark Donskoi and adapted from Gorky’s autobiography. These three films are all from Russico, and apparently all three were available at one time with English subtitles, but so far I’ve only been able to find the other two films in Russian only. 

The film is set in the 19th century and begins with the arrival of Aleksei Peshkov (Aleksei Lyarsky) and his mother by boat to join his mother’s family. Although it’s not expressed, the idea is present that Aleksei and his mother Varvara Peshkova (Yelizaveta Alekseyeva) have returned to her family due to harsh necessity. It seems that Aleksei’s father was not popular with Varvara’s irascible contentious father, Vasili Kashrin (Mikhail Troyanovsky), but Aleksei’s father is now dead. Structurally, the film follows Aleksei’s early life concentrating on the people and incidents that influenced him.

Varvara and her son Aleksei return to a viper’s nest. The problems within the family are glaringly apparent, and most of the squabbles arise over the question of inheritance and how the family dye business will be divvied up among the three children. Aleksei’s two uncles engage in endless battles of recrimination, but they shelve their quarrels for the most part in the presence of their domineering father. The uncles, Mishka and Yashka (Aleksandr  Zhukov & Vasili Novikov) are unpleasant and stupid, and according to the grandfather, when they inherit they “will squander everything on drink.” Given the few scenes involving the uncles, there’s not much reason to argue with the grandfather’s assessment, and in some ways this pathological family situation is very stereotypical. The grandmother (Varvara Massalitinova) is viewed as indulgent, excusing her sons’ behaviour and pestering the grandfather to share the inheritance while he is still alive (reminds me of Zola’s The Earth), and of course, the grandfather reacts by arguing that his wife coddles the sons and has made them into loafers. Basically the family members are at each other’s throats for a battle over the limited resources.

The film shows Aleksei’s relationship with two of his grandfather’s workers: the nearly blind Gregori (K. Zubkov): a good man who’s worked for the grandfather for 37 years. Being in close contact with the dyes has caused Gregori to lose his sight, but there’s no sense of obligation felt by the grandfather towards the man who’s served him for almost four decades. Another huge influence on Aleksei is the Ivan the Gyspy (Daniil Sagal): an employee, a kind, vigorous young man whose zest for life is squashed by Aleksei’s revolting uncles. The grandfather regrets the Gyspy’s death as he would have been “priceless in 5 years.”

A major influence on Aleksei is his wonderful grandmother, an avid storyteller, a woman who loves her home and her family and suffers mistreatment & beatings from her husband. The grandmother is obviously the glue that holds the family together, but when adversity strikes, even she cannot fix the situation, and Aleksei lives with his grandparents, moving and sinking farther and farther into poverty.

Living with his grandparents, but left more to less to his own devices, Aleksei learns to scavenge to earn enough kopecks for food. As their fortunes decline, Aleksei’s grandfather, who is apparently not the most stable of men, vacillates between petty childish tantrums and vicious attacks on his family.

A lodger (S. Tikhonravov) becomes another tremendous shaping influence on Aleksei. Through the lodger, who’s a revolutionary, Aleksei learns that “a man with learning can be anything he likes.”

Various animals appear throughout the film, and clearly they have an important role in Gorky’s life. The film includes moments of whimsy in its depiction of Aleksei running wild in the streets and fields with a band of equally wretched boys (see the DVD cover). But underneath these sentimental touches, there’s the clear message that all these poor people have are their bodies and their ability to labour. There is no social structure to buoy up the blind, the elderly, or the infirm, and those who cannot work must beg for a living or starve. The grandfather recalls how he pulled barges for a living, but in the grandfather’s case, adversity makes him meaner and less likely to share a crust of bread with a passing beggar. The film does not touch on the upper classes but stays firmly with the peasants.

Gorky, a founder of Socialist Realism, is a problematic figure in the history of Russian literature. I don’t want to spend a great deal of time on Gorky’s politics–although it seems impossible to review the film and not mention Gorky’s position in both Tsarist Russia and Stalin’s Soviet Union. At first a supporter of the Revolution, Gorky became disillusioned, as many did, with the outrages of the Bolsheviks. Censored under the Tsar, Gorky found himself censored under the Bolsheviks too. Gorky lived abroad for some years but then returned to the Soviet Union at the personal invitation of Stalin. There are photos of Gorky and Stalin together, and I know I wouldn’t want my mug to go down in history next to Stalin’s.  Gorky was given a mansion and a dacha by Stalin, but by 1934 he was back under house arrest. I’ll admit that one of the reasons I didn’t watch the film earlier is because I connect Gorky with Stalinist propaganda. Gorky knew what was happening in the Soviet Union; he knew that writers, such as Gumilyov were being executed, so Gorky didn’t even have the excuse of ignorance when he returned and effectively endorsed the Stalinist regime. No matter what Gorky’s motives were in returning to Stalinist Russia, his legacy to Russian literature suffered as a result. Many Russian emigre writers suffered in exile and many poets and writers were slaughtered in Stalinist times. My sympathies are with them.

At the same time, to wipe out The Childhood of Maxim Gorky as pure propaganda seems nonsensical. This was Gorky’s childhood, and his childhood mirrored the lives of millions of Russians who depended on their health and their strength to eke out a living. The quantification of humans into the volume of labour they can produce is horrifying (makes me think of factory farming). Watching the film brings to the fore the tremendous waste of human potential under such a system. And of course that brings us back to the idea of revolution….

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A Hero of Our Time 2006 (clip)

To date (2/10) there’s no version available of the 2006 film A Hero of Our Time (Geroy Nashego Vremeni) with English subtitles. But here’s a clip (Pechorin’s Duel) from youtube:

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Russkoe (2004)

“For Art to be profitable, it has to be on the same side as crime.”

Russkoe, a 2004 film directed by Aleksandr Veledinsky is based on the novels and stories of Eduard Limonov, so it shouldn’t be too surprising that the film is partly autobiographical. The film is set in 1959 and when the film begins it’s the October  holidays, and everyone is celebrating. Everyone except Ed…. 

Ed (Andrey Chadov) is 16. He’s the only child of a policeman (Mikhail Efremov) and his wife (Yevdokiya Germanova) in the Ukrainian city of Kharkov. Kharkov is the sort of town in which the breaking of a shop window morphs into an intense search for the perpetrator. Although there’s a vivid street life among various outcasts and misfits, daily Soviet life is depicted as rather drab and unpleasant with everyone leading a hardscrabble existence. Aspects of Western culture peek through as desirable and unattainable (Elvis Presley, for example) to Ed’s crowd.  Ed, who’s a would-be poet, runs with a marginal crowd and isn’t above using his poetry to distract victims for pickpocketing. In one scene, a woman covered with war medals screams that she’s been robbed by Ed’s friends, and she’s man-handled by the local police who are more interested in shutting her up than investigating her accusations. 

When the film begins, Ed is infatutated by the perfect, unattainable beauty, Svetka (Olga Arntgolts). Sveta tells Ed “You are too poor for me,”  and then Sveta hints that she may have sex with Ed if he takes her to a restaurant. Ed spends quite a bit of time and energy trying to get 200-300 roubles in order to give Sveta a night out. Unfortunately while Ed goes around hitting up everyone for a loan, they in turn hit him up for a drink instead. But after his futile quest for money ends badly (and he abandons a book of Blok poetry), he finds himself locked up in the Saburka insane asylum for a “puberty crisis.” And this is where the film settles in and becomes very interesting, dark, and humourous. 

Although just 16, Ed is placed in the adult ward, in the so-called quiet room with four other prisoners. There’s Sasha (a WWII deserter) a man who continues to be there through influence, a psychopath, an intellectual, and Avaz (Aleksandr Robak), a chronic masturbator. While Ed imagines that his turn-around in the insane asylum will be fast, another inmate explains that Ed has a fat chance of being released since the fascist medical director specializes  in suicide. 

In pre-revolutionary Russia, prisons became the ‘universities’ for dissidents, and in Russkoe, the message seems to be that the insane asylum becomes Ed’s ‘university’. Locked up with the so-called insane, he learns to value his poetry and use it as a tool. He’s told that “all the greats wrote in jail,” and he discovers that Khelnikov and Vrubel were locked up in the same institution. 

The characters in the insane asylum are locked up for various transgressions against Soviet society. A suicide case is supposed to be locked up for his own protection until the crisis is over. But in Ed’s case, he’s viewed as some sort of deviant. The film is rife with imagery of Soviet culture which largely focuses on telling people how to behave–one poster depicts a man saying ‘No’  to alcohol, another poster promotes breast  health, and a poster inside the insane asylum lists various “Socialist Obligations.” There’s a dark humour to the appearance of this poster as the staff at the insane asylum–with very few exceptions play out their own fantasies and theories of life using the patients. The favoured punishment  is to strap the patient to his bed and inject him with sulfur: “If you misbehave, you get sulfur. Takes you three days to get back.” 

Perversions of power, the crushing of individualism and the control of behaviour appear throughout the film, and  at one point a character discusses religion with Ed, asking:  “Is god a kind of super KGB agent listening to all of us all the time?” Along with this view are crimes against the state and the subsequent punishment–with those in charge making all the decisions about what’s acceptable in society and what isn’t. Ed, after all, tried to destroy himself, and rather ineffectually at that. For this ‘crime,’ he’s viciously punished and almost destroyed by the very institution that is supposedly saving him from himself.

Clips from the film October by Sergei Eisenstein depict the storming of the Winter Palace in 1917 and these scenes are recreated in parallel scenes of the residents of Kharkov storming the asylum. The message is that perhaps another revolution needs to take place. 

Eduard Liminov is the leader and founder of the Nationalist Bolshevik Party (The Nazbols), and one scene depicts Ed as a middle-aged man, still in prison garb and the physical similarity to Limoniv is inescapable. Limonov was locked up in 2002 for weapons trafficking. In an early scene in the film, one of Ed’s friends rues that their Slav ancestors  “didn’t fight to conquer hot countries.” Since one of The National Bolsheviks’ goals is to create one huge country which encompasses Russia and Europe, I wasn’t sure if this is a sly dig or just a way to show the germination of Limonov’s beliefs. I read some articles about Limonov (whose real name is Savenko, by the way). Some of the articles were patronizing, but that said, I don’t agree with Limonov’s disturbing politics at all. I did enjoy the film, though. I can find very little information about Russkoe, so if someone out there has more information, please leave a comment.


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Tsar (2009)

“I return good for good and evil for evil.”

If you want to understand why Ivan the Terrible earned his name, then seek out a copy of Tsar from director Pavel Lungin. Tsar is every bit as atmospheric as director Lungin’s The Island (Ostrov) and as entertaining as Tycoon (Oligarkh). As with other Russian historical films, the viewer should come to the film with a little back ground information–otherwise the film’s beginning sequences will seem confusing.

It’s 16th century Russia, 1565 to be precise and this is a pivotal time in Ivan’s reign. In a nutshell, this is the point when Ivan the Terrible goes completely bonkers. He’s convinced that the last days are nigh, and politically he faces many enemies at home and abroad. Tsar is essentially a distillation of a fairly brief portion of Ivan’s bloody reign which focuses on the relationship between Ivan (Pyotr Mamonov) and his childhood friend Philip (Oleg Yankovskiy), a Russian orthodox monk. Philip is living in the Solovetsky Monastery when he’s asked by Ivan to become the Metropolitan (Metropolitan Bishop). Philip agrees on the condition that Ivan abolish the  Oprichnina and its enforcers, the Oprichniks–a band of political police who wear black cowls and who ride with wolves heads on their saddles. These Oprichniks are on the loose in the film, running amok, organizing repressions, mass murders and torture of anyone who falls into their sphere–it doesn’t seem to matter if the victims are guilty or not of crimes against Ivan.

Anyway, this is the background for the film; Ivan agrees to disband the Oprichnina; Philip agrees to become Metropolitan and then Ivan breaks the agreement. The men find themselves on opposite sides of the monarch-god divide with Ivan busy punishing everyone he can get his hands on and Philip pleading for mercy. It’s not a rare thing for a ruler to challenge the power of the church, or for the church to question the absolutism of the monarchy; there have been other examples which ended in death: Henry II and Thomas a Becket, Thomas More and Henry VIII, but perhaps the clash between Metropolitan Philip and Ivan is more spectacularly bloody. Most of the story follows their tumultuous relationship–with Ivan demanding and Philip eventually refusing to grant forgiveness for Ivan’s crimes.

The film doesn’t have the greatest subtitles, and so a certain amount of tolerance is required from the viewer, but apart from that this is a spectacular film, a marvelous recreation of the excesses, insanity and utter cruelty of this barbaric age. As expected, there are some scenes of torture, and in one rather gruesome scene, a bear, set loose in an arena, eats the intestines of a man while Ivan and the court look on this ‘entertaining’ scene. Ivan watches with a little girl sitting on his lap. The child, a daughter of one on Ivan’s now dead enemies, asks Ivan in hushed tones if ‘it hurts,’ and Ivan joyfully replies, “of course,” stressing the idea that the pain is the entire point.

In another sequence, Ivan and his equally nasty Tsarina (he burned through eight wives by the way) Maria (Ramilya Iskander) are escorted in sleighs through the snow to see what at first seems like some sort of amusement park, but the amusement park doubles as a torture centre. Ivan is delighted and can’t wait to try it out. Ivan vacillates between acts of tremendous cruelty and periods of self-imposed isolation and prayer, and actor Pyotr Mamonov brilliantly captures the dangerous moods–sliding from craftiness to paranoia seamlessly. As Ivan sinks deeper into sadistic madness, Philip gains a calm acceptance which Ivan challenges and attempts to overturn. Ivan finally uses Philip’s nephew in a cruel attempt to smash Philip’s equanimity. The question becomes at what point should a voice of rationality and sanity divorce itself from the excesses of an insane monarch and refuse to cooperate with the madness.

This is a beautifully made film with incredible touches at just the right moment. Divided into four segments, the film charts Ivan’s actions as he’s plagued with military losses and paranoia over possible (and well-deserved) betrayal. With omens of the last days, the Poles beating his armies, and with the virgin daughters of the Boyars enslaved to prepare Ivan’s new church, the film reflects and thus propagates Ivan’s infectious Armageddon mentality. In one of the most delicately handled scenes that could so easily have folded to excess, monks are burnt alive and we see them kneeling and singing but their voices are silent as the smoke swirls and the flames lap the building. For a visual spectacle, Tsar is marvellous as it recreates some of the more infamous moments including the massacre of Novgorod. In the film’s unsettling final scene, it remains unclear whether a ghostly wind carries faint cries or if it simply echoes through the deserted dwellings of Novgorod.


Filed under Period Piece, Russian

Brother 2 (2000)

“You bitches will answer to me for Sevastopol!”

Brother 2 (Brat 2) is the follow up film to 1997’s Brother (Brat). Both films are directed by Aleksey Balabanov and star Sergei Bodrov Jr in the leading role of Danila Bagrov. Sergei Bodrov Jr was tragically killed during a glacier slide in the Caucacus in 2002. What a tragic loss to his family and to Russian cinema as this actor certainly had a great career ahead of him.  

Brother 2 (Brat 2) begins with Danila (Bodrov), along with two other Russian army veterans Ilya (Kirill Pirogov) and Kostya (Alexander Dyachenko), meeting at a television station for an appearance on the show “World of People,” and in this segment of the show the groundwork is laid illustrating the bond these three Chechen war veterans share. While in the first film, Brother, Danila claimed he just had a desk job in the army, this segment of Brother 2 makes it clear that Danila was involved in combat. After the taping of the TV programme, the three friends meet at a spa and Kostya mentions that his twin brother, ice hockey star Dmitri, plays in America for the Chicago Blackhawks. But while Dimitri should be raking in the big bucks, he’s locked in under contract to a corrupt American businessman, Mennis (Gary Houston). Mennis’s contract ensures that Dmitri, who should be a wealthy man, plays on a major team but gets a fraction of his check. Kostya discusses the problem with Ilya and Danila and mentions that since Mennis is about to arrive in Moscow, he will bring the problem to the attention of his slimy boss, Nikolyaevsky Bank executive Valentin Belkin (Sergei Makovetsky)–a business partner of Mennis.

Bad idea….

Soon Danila and Ilya are on the run from Belkin’s henchmen, and along the way they get some colourful assistance from weapon hoarder and merchant Fascist (Konstantin Murzenko). The quest for justice takes Danila and his brother Viktor (Viktor Sukhorukov), a professional hitman known as The Tartar on a journey from Moscow to the clubs of Chicago. Brother 2 seems to be fairly standard fare at first, with Danila on the run from some blockhead baddies, but once Danila and Viktor hit America’s shores, the film ramps up and the fun really begins. A great deal of the fun comes from the encounters both men have on American soil; Danila is ripped off by his fellow Russians, makes friends with a truck driver (Ray Toler) and falls foul of a pimp. Meanwhile Viktor has the time of his life unleashed in Chicago.

The film also includes a few sly and not so-sly digs at American culture–including an enormous hamburger and the corruption and laziness of American law enforcement. According to Chicago police, it’s apparently ok to drink alcohol in broad daylight as long as the booze bottle is in a brown paper bag and the bottle isn’t exposed. Viktor fails to grasp this subtlety, and he soon shows Chicago’s police force what they can do with their laws. In its depiction of American culture, there is much to offend, but it should be remembered that some of the film is played for laughs, and the view isn’t flattering. Danila hangs out in a mostly black Chicago ghetto, and this section of the film gives a view of black culture that isn’t positive. This however is counterbalanced by Danila’s fortuitous and painful meeting with leggy black TV news reporter Lisa Jeffrey.

The film, while extremely funny, also has a serious side when it comes to the issue of American vs Russian values. Danila’s opinion of American culture is that money makes power, and by extension in American society, money supersedes all morality. Russian arms merchant, Fascist, for example is painstakingly honest in his dealings with Danila, and this can be compared to the dishonest Brighton Beach car merchant who appears later in the film. Brother 2 portrays some Russians who seem to have forgotten their country’s values and have gone native by placing money as the supreme value. Dmitri, for example, is one such soulless character. Similarly, the Russian prostitute, Marilyn/Dasha (Dariya Lesnikova) is another character who’s more or less forgotten her Russian code of behaviour until she gets a few refresher lessons from Danila.

The character of Danila continues to be every bit as intriguing as in the first film. Too often sequels neglect to flesh out their characters while the emphasis goes on plot rather than character. Filmmakers guilty of this error seem to feel that nothing else is required as the popular characters are already so comfortably ‘established’ with the audience. Brother 2 shows Danila’s sentimentality–towards friends, children, and towards his homeland–Russia. A couple of scenes focus on Danila’s face as he looks at his brother lovingly murmuring the word, ‘brother.’ And of course in this film, music fiend Danila rather appropriately has a relationship with Russian pop star, Irina Saltykova.

Fans of the first film should catch the complete reversal of fortune that occurs at the beginning of Brother 2. Viktor is stuck at home with his mother, and she urges him to go join his brother Danila in Moscow. This is at once a replay but a reversal of the beginning of Brother when Danila is told to go and visit his successful brother, Viktor in Moscow. If you enjoyed Brother, then grab a copy of  Brother 2. It’s a bitter-sweet experience–a very enjoyable film, but tragic that Sergei Bodrov will make no more for his fans.

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A Cruel Romance (1984)

a cruel romanceA Cruel Romance (Ruthless Romance, Zhestokiy Romans) is a gem of Soviet cinema. Based on the play The Dowerless Girl by Aleksandr Ostrovsky and directed by Eldar Ryazanov, this is the story of Larissa Dmitrievna (Larisa Guzeyeva), a young girl from an impoverished family of the gentry in late 19th century Russia.

The film begins with the wedding of Larissa’s sister, Olga, who’s being married off to a Caucasian prince. The wedding is over, and Olga, obviously a desperately unhappy bride, is about to sail off to the Caucasus with her new, wildly jealous husband whose tribal culture is vastly different from her own.  Olga’s future happiness may be doubtful, and while wedding guests murmur their amusement with the situation, the marriage is seen as a stroke of luck for Olga’s mother, Kharita Ogoudalova (Alisa Frejndlikh).

The Ogoudalova family was once considered the finest family in the region, but when the film begins those days are long gone. Matriarch Kharita lives on the family estate which is mortgaged up to the hilt. There’s no mention of Kharita’s husband, but she has three daughters. Anna is married to a gambler and living in Monte Carlo in somewhat desperate straits, and now with Olga married off, that leaves Larissa in the nest. Marrying off the last daughter is an imperative.

Kharita lives beyond her means in order to continue the facade that she’s wealthy, but her problems go far deeper than this. Kharita’s poor judgment is reflected in her dress–she dresses like a much younger woman, but even worse, she places herself and her daughter Larissa in a most morally precarious position by allowing married banker, the portly Moky Knurov (Alexei Petrenko) to give her money–sometimes with questionable objectives.

Larissa seems to have no shortage of suitors. Or at least it would appear so from the large number of men who flock to the social events at the family home.  One of Larissa’s most patient suitors is the dull post office worker Yuli Karandyshev (Andrei Myagkov) who’s very easily made to look like a complete idiot by the suave playboy Sergey Sergeyevich Paratov (Nikita Mikhalkov).

Just as Larissa seems to on the path to engagement, fate intervenes. Will she be saved or destroyed as several males in Larissa’s circle take her fate into their own hands….

While A Cruel Romance is the tale of exactly what happens to Larissa at the hands of the men in her social circle, the film also makes a larger statement about Russian society and the erosion of the gentry by the merchant class. The Ogoudalovas are the ‘finest’ family around, but the mother resorts to fobbing off her daughters on the highest bidder, and since the girls have no dowry, they are sold off quite cheaply. Kharita must be held at least partly responsible for what happens to Larissa. Kharita’s carelessness cannot be blamed on either naivete or a desire to see her daughter happy. And then what of Kharita’s relationship with the married banker Moky Knurov? Does Kharita find it convenient to turn a blind eye to his intentions?

Ivan Petrovich is also a member of the gentry, and while he appears as a glamorous, dashing lover–a perfect foil to the stodgy Yuli Karandyshev, in reality, Ivan has plunged his family estate into debt. He owns The Swallow, a huge steamship and plans to become a successful businessman. Wherever Ivan goes, he moves in a self-created cocoon of splendour, action and adoration, but Ivan’s world is as false and empty as he is. Meanwhile while Larissa is courted and romanced, both Ivan’s and the Ogoudalova’s  family fortunes are carefully monitored in a predatory fashion by the banker Moky Knurov and Ivan’s rival Vassily Vozhevatov (Victor Proskurin).

A Cruel Romance is a marvelous costume drama, beautifully acted, with a marvellous musical score, and full of gorgeous shots of the Volga. While there’s plenty of romance, it’s delivered with a bitter touch that’s certain to please Russophiles.


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