Tag Archives: marriage

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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Moscow Does Not Believe In Tears (1979)

“Moscow is one big lottery. There you can hit the jackpot.”

moscow does not believe in tearsSet in Moscow in the late 50s through the late 70s, Moscow Does Not Believe in Tears (Moskva Slezam ne Verit) follows the lives of three Soviet women, Katerina “Katya” (Vera Alentova),  Lyudmilla  “Luida” (Irina Muravyova), and Antonina  “Tonya” (Raisa Ryazanova). Originally from the provinces, the three girls now live in a Worker’s Dormitory and work in Moscow factories. The forceful, determined Luida says that Moscow is like a lottery and by that she means she intends to marry ‘up.’ Meanwhile, the quiet, simple Tonya steadily dates her regular boyfriend,Nikolai (Boris Smorchov) and Katya, the serious one of the trio, hopes to improve herself by getting into university.

Fate intervenes when Katya’s aunt and uncle go on holiday and leave their large, sumptuous flat and their Pekingese in her care. Luida sees this as a wonderful opportunity to entertain eligible men, and entertain she does, dragging Katya into her scheme. The two girls host parties for various men invited by Luida, and the crafty Luida passes herself (and Katya) off as professor’s daughters.

 Luida’s scheme works and she manages to snare professional hockey player Gurin (Alexsandr Fatyushin) while Katya is drawn to television cameraman Rachkov (Yuri Vasilyev)….

The film then flashes forward to 1978 and picks up the trails of the three main female characters’ lives.

Moscow Does Not Believe in Tears is essentially a drama laced with comedy–albeit most of the amusement comes from the marvellous character of the indestructible Luida. While Tonya seeks the traditional role of wife and mother, Katya manages to fulfill her ambition to become an educated career woman, and the way the film bridges the time gap between Katya’s struggles and then her success–through the use of a deceptively simple scene involving an alarm clock–is pure brilliance.

Luida’s ambition was to move up in society through marriage, and she employed all means possible to achieve her goal. Essentially her plan goes awry and this is perhaps both a moral and a social statement.When the film picks up the story in 1978, we can see just how far the three women–now entering middle age–have gone with their lives. Some plans have worked and others are a miserable failure. But Luida–in spite of the dashing of her great hopes still indefatigably pursues her goal of catching a man.

The film explores the idea of the strong Russian woman, and the film’s title refers to the fact that the women will continue to plough on–in this case with or without men. Several of the scenes underscore the lack of eligible men available. At first, this is largely seen through Luida’s attempts to hook a man using artifice and clothes as social disguises (at one point, she begins dressing up as a student in order to haunt the university libraries for prey). But the idea that there’s a distinct lack of eligible men is still prevalent in 1978, when Katya visits a centre that is essentially a club for singles, so inundated with females that no more women are allowed to join.

The film has some nice little twists and turns. Katya’s first big mistake was to pretend to be something she wasn’t, and although she was pushed into this by the domineering Luida, Katya pays a great price for this error. Ironically just as she once deceived a man about the truth of her humble circumstances, when she meets Gosha (Aleksei Batalov) and falls in love, she hides the fact that she’s a successful engineer who runs a factory, and pretends she is a simple worker.

While the film includes many themes that are easily accessible–loneliness, career and personal sacrifice, relationships and ambition, there’s another fascinating facet to this film. American film often depicts its characters in conflict with the society in which they live. In Moscow Does Not Believe in Tears, the characters are seem struggling but working harmoniously within society and not railing against it.

Moscow Does Not Believe In Tears won the Oscar for the Best Foreign Language Film in 1981, and it’s easy to see why. With its universal, upbeat and optimistic themes, and its portrayal of everyday life in a frank, yet sympathetic manner, it’s readily accessible to a foreign audience. From director Vladimir Menshov

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Days and Clouds (2007)

 “We kept living as though nothing had happened.”

The excellent Italian drama Days and Clouds (aka Giorni e Nuvole) charts the disintegration of the marriage of an affluent middle-aged couple as their fortunes change for the worse. When the film begins, the very attractive Elsa (Margherita Buy) has just completed a long-held ambition to graduate from art school, and her husband, Michele (Antonio Albanese) gives her a pricey pair of antique earrings and throws a surprise party. But all this appearance of wealth is a façade. The party is over quite literally when Michele reluctantly reveals that he’s now unemployed and has been for months. A former company director, he’s been squeezed out by his partners as part of a restructuring move. Elsa is flabbergasted to learn that there is hardly any money left to pay the bills, and that their lifestyle must change radically. Blindsided by the news, she tries to gauge just how bad things are.

days-and-cloudsThe film follows exactly how this couple copes with the many changes they must face, and there are moments when they are both in denial about the severity of their financial crisis. Elsa has no idea how much their monthly expenses are, and so she must rapidly learn some of the very basic facts about their finances before even beginning to make plans. Michele, on the other hand, has a very difficult time accepting that he can’t pick up the check for all of his friends at the expensive restaurants they habituate. Shame soon leads both Elsa and Michele to cut themselves off from their friends as they sink from their affluent lifestyle to a working class environment without fancy vacations, pricey wines or valuable antiques.

Director Silvio Soldini explored the dynamics of a marriage in trouble in his film Bread and Tulips, but in that film, the wife exploits an opportunity to run away. Not so in Days and Clouds where Elsa tries sticking to her marriage even as her formerly good relationship with Michele disintegrates as the money pressures mount.

As the couple loses their material possessions, Elsa markets her job skills and puts her art restoration interests on hold, working two jobs. Meanwhile, Michele discovers that no one wants to employ a middle-aged executive. This all raises questions: was their marriage “happy” because it was coated with affluence, or is their relationship stressed solely to financial pressures? To exacerbate the situation, it’s also quite clear that once Michele is stripped of his ability to earn a living, on many levels, his wife vastly outclasses him.

The film raises some intriguing issues, but while these issues appear for our scrutiny, they are not dissected and analyzed. For example, as the money pressures mount, we begin to wonder if Michele was really ‘protecting’ Elsa by keeping her in the dark about their financial situation, or if this was just one part of his continuum of denial. Through the course of the film, it becomes apparent that perhaps Michele contributed to his own downfall–certainly his ex-business partners think so.

Days and Clouds includes some simply marvelous touches, the acting is superb, and this is one of the best (and most painful) depictions I’ve seen of the decline of an upper middle class family. This is yet another wonderful film from Film Movement, and Days and Clouds is August’s selection for their DVD of the month club. For more information about Film Movement or to join the club, go to www.filmmovement.com

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Facing Windows (2003)

 “Don’t be content to merely survive.”

Young Italian couple Giovanna (Giovanna Mezzogiorno) and Filippo (Filippo Nigro) find a well-dressed elderly man wandering in the street. Giovanna wants to leave the stranger, but Filippo insists on taking him back to their flat. The plan is to take the old man to the police station. There’s no missing persons report on file, so the old man stays with the young family. The old man says his name is Simone, and a concentration camp tattoo on his left forearm reveals some clues to his tragic past. Simone’s presence brings long simmering resentments to a boiling point. Giovanna sees Filippo’s failure to dump Simone at the police station as just another one of his long list of failures. But when Lorenzo (Raoul Bova), a handsome neighbor begins to help, Giovanna’s interest in Simone’s past suddenly increases.

facing-windowsFacing Windows weaves flashbacks from Simone’s past into Giovanna’s efforts to track down the truth. At the beginning of the film, Giovanna is too angry and punchy to stop and pay attention to any one else’s problems. She’s locked into an unsatisfying marriage with a husband who’s a disappointment. She longs to be a pastry chef, but instead she’s shelved that idea for a more practical career–she’s an accountant at a chicken packing plant. Lorenzo represents not only what she’s missed, but also what she could have, and it soon becomes apparent that Giovanna is facing some difficult choices.

Giovanna’s window faces Lorenzo’s flat, so they can stare at each other from their respective windows. But that’s just a literal translation of the title, and the film is much deeper and richer than that. Facing Windows is about facing one’s past, and also facing the future. Simone’s tragic past left him with a few treasured memories, and some unique ideas about the beauty of preserving love over time. Giovanna’s chance meeting with the old man forces her to reexamine her life in a new light.

Facing Windows is an amazing film. I tend to find Italian film too sentimental for my tastes a great deal of the time, but Facing Windows is the perfect balance of nostalgia, hope, regret and loss. This is a beautiful film from one of my favourite directors, Turkish Ferzan Ozpetek.

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