Tag Archives: Soviet Union

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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To See Paris and Die (1992)

“I don’t want to do it like humans.”

The iconic strong woman is a character often portrayed in Soviet & Russian cinema, and a strong woman is at the heart of Aleksandr Proshkin’s 1992 film To See Paris and Die.

Middle-aged, elegant and attractive Elena (Tatyana Vasilyeva) is an admirable, yet coldly driven character whose one ambition is to see her pianist son, Yuri (Dmitri Malikov) get to Paris. She will stop at nothing to achieve this, and is fully prepared to use whatever means she has at her disposal to achieve her ends.

While her son, Yuri attends the conservatory and spends endless hours practicing at a piano in their apartment, Elena plots his success, and she knows that talent alone isn’t going to get him to Paris. She works as a hostess in some swanky faux-ethnic restaurant in Moscow, and there dressed for the part, she shepherds important KGB officials and their guests as they enjoy lavish meals in a sumptuous setting. One of the restaurant’s frequent visitors is a young KGB officer who guides revolutionaries through Moscow, sleeping with them as part of the entertainment package. Another one of the restaurant patrons is a middle-aged bureaucrat who’s on a competition committee to select pianists for the Paris tour.

Elena plots her son’s success but she’s hampered by the arrival of a new neighbor, Evgeny. Crude, obnoxious and intrusive, Evgeny, a jockey, makes a sexual overture to Elena that is summarily rejected, and this sets a course of bitter revenge. Evgeny, however, is immediately popular with Elena’s other neighbour, and this division underscores Elena’s isolation and refinement. Elena’s struggle for Yuri’s success is also hampered by Yuri’s love for a young Jewish girl. While the girl is respectful of Elena and certainly doesn’t want to supplant her role of power and control, Elena is sure that the fact that her son wants to marry a Jew will bury his chances for Paris. Instead, Elena concocts ways to sabotage the romance and cultivates Yuri’s relationship with the KGB girl.

Elena’s character is revealed through her relationships with several men in her life. She prefers to be in control in these relationships–whether it’s her son, the accordion-playing bureaucrat, her shady ex-husband, or her former lover and artist Solodov. And while each of these men see a different side of Elena, there is never a hint of weakness.  Perhaps it is in her relationship with Solodov that Elena reveals more emotion and indecision. Even when Elena trades sex for favours, there’s never a hint that she’s humiliated or demeaned by men–it’s business, pure and simple. This all changes, however, with the arrival of the brutish Evgeny.

Some of the film’s best scenes occur in the cramped boarding house. Here, with a complete lack of privacy, neighbours are able to easily spy on each other, and Elena becomes convinced that Evgeny is a KGB spy. Elena is willing to use sex to further her goal, but it has to be on her terms, with her in control. She coldly metes out sexual favours, any hint of denigration is mollified by her total absence of emotional involvement. While Elena’s life is centered on her son’s success, she objectifies him, and drives him as hard as she drives herself, and in her treatment of Yuri she is merciless. In spite of her harshness, and her single-minded ambition to get Yuri to Paris, Elena is a sympathetic character. There are glimpses of humanity beneath her hard glittering exterior–her adoration of Edith Piaf for example. The film’s title: To See Paris and Die is significant. Elena’s ambition is to get Yuri to Paris, but she hasn’t planned beyond that. ‘Seeing Paris,’ is in many ways–at least to Elena–a symbolic, imaginative event. In her mind, she envisions Yuri there, and this vision leads to her destruction.

While the film is set in the 60s, two of the male characters, Yuri and the artist Solodov both have very 80s haircuts for some reason. I had to remind myself that this was the 60s in a couple of places. It isn’t easy to find a copy of this film, but if you are at all interested in Russian film, or the work of Proshkin, it’s well worth tracking down the excellent To See Paris and Die.

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The Inner Circle (1991)

“There are spies and subversives everywhere.”

If Stalin turned to you and tried to elicit confidences with the statement: “Don’t worry, we are all friends here” you would have good reason to be worried, and that’s exactly the situation Ivan Sanshin (Tom Hulce) confronts in the film The Inner Circle.

When the film begins, Ivan is a lowly projectionist for the KGB club. On his wedding night, he’s scooped by up KGB officials and swept off to the Kremlin. Since one of his neighbours has just been arrested for being an “enemy of the state” Ivan isn’t particularly optimistic about the outcome. But as fate would have it, Ivan is destined to become Stalin’s projectionist, and over the years he scurries off to the Kremlin at all hours of the night to indulge Stalin’s love of Western film.

The Inner Circle is a clever film, and it establishes a great deal early in the plot development. Ivan isn’t a noble character; he’s just someone who wants to get by, so when his neighbours are dragged off and disappear into the void, he doesn’t ask questions. Neither does he worry when he profits from their arrest and is allowed to move into their slightly larger apartment. At his job at the Kremlin, Ivan sees first hand the different standards for those who rule Russia and those who suffer from those rules. For example, one of the reasons Ivan’s neighbours are considered enemies of the state is because they possess materials written in a foreign language. Yet Stalin and his various ministers enjoy banned Western films on a nightly basis. The film very cleverly allows the viewer to draw conclusions about the hypocrisy of the leaders who indulge in activities that the minions of the state would be shipped off to labour camps or executed for. But Ivan, unfortunately doesn’t make the connections. He continues to worship Stalin and Beria–alternately overwhelmed and terrified when they glance at him.

Ivan’s wife, Anastasia (Lolita Davidovich) however, doesn’t quite accept things as blindly as her husband. She’s not portrayed as a subversive or a dissident, but when Anatasia questions the fate of the neighbour’s little girl, she jeopardizes herself and Ivan.

The film includes some wonderful imagery. The Sanshins, for example, live on Slaughterhouse Street–named aptly for the slaughterhouse that stands at the end of the road. From their basement apartment, they see hundreds of cows ambling to their imminent deaths. These sequences are accompanied by Ivan’s narration about Stalin’s purges, and the journey of the cows, is of course, symbolic of the massive slaughter of Russians during Stalin’s reign of power. Just as Ivan watches the cows amble by, he is a spectator to the actions of the Kremlin.

The fake Russian accents are tedious, but the acting was excellent. The film does a marvelous job of conveying the effectiveness of fear as a controlling device. There’s one scene when a KGB agent warns Ivan that there are spies everywhere, and there’s a sort of irony to this as, of course, the spies are your neighbours, your friends, your workmates, and fear has simply made this so. Fear–not foreign espionage–has infiltrated Stalinist society at every level. Directed by Andrei Konchalovsky, The Inner Circle is Ivan’s tale, and this true story presents a chilling portrait of a horrific era.

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