Wednesday, 23 February 2011

Russia Through the Prism of Soviet Comedies

To people who grew up in the Soviet Union and the safe, predictable and drab environment of the 1970s and ’80s, the Russia that emerged when communism collapsed was a complete surprise. Oligarchs, gangsters and separatists from the North Caucasus seemed to have appeared from nowhere, and over the past 20 years they have dominated the country.
What is remarkable, however, is that the three most popular Soviet films of the late 1960s and the early ’70s — comedies made during the Golden Age of the Soviet Union — dealt with those three issues. All three were viewed by millions and are still shown regularly on television. Several generations grew up repeating catchphrases from those films, even though few even realize where they came from.
“Kavkazskaya Plennitsa” (“Prisoner of the Caucasus”) is set in a North Caucasus republic — Dagestan or even Chechnya. The action hinges on a local official staging a kidnapping of a young woman. It is all fun and games, and the film gets much comic mileage out of the locals’ accents and quaint customs. But you get an eerie feeling watching this film after two decades of bloodletting in the region and devastating terrorism in European Russia.
Then there was “Brilliantovaya Ruka” (“The Diamond Arm”), another extremely popular comedy. Its ostensible subject is jewelry smuggling, and it has the look and feel of an Italian or French comedy from the same era. But it also features an underground millionaire who, not surprisingly, runs the local mafia.
Finally, the most prescient film of the bunch was “Dzhentlmeny Udachi” (“Gentlemen of Fortune”). It starred brilliant actor Yevgeny Leonov in a double role as a sweet, innocent preschool teacher who turns out to be a dead ringer for a nasty career criminal. To help them find a stolen object, the police ask the teacher to impersonate the criminal.

The Moscow Times

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