Saturday, 18 June 2011

Nikolai Ekk: Road to Life - Путевка в жизнь (1931)

Director: Nikolai Ekk
Writers: Nikolai Ekk, Aleksandr Stolper
Stars: Nikolai Batalov, Yvan Kyrlya, Mikhail Dzhagofarov

Road to Life (Original Title: Putyovka v zhizn) is a 1931 drama film, directed and written by Nikolai Ekk. The film won an award at the 1932 Venice International Film Festival, which went to Nikolai Ekk for Most Convincing Director. ...

One of the first Soviet sound films—with an imaginative sound track far ahead of its time—Nikolai Ekk's Road to Life was a smash hit both in Russia and in the West, where its impact generated some dozen spin-offs on its theme of "difficult" children. A Soviet critic, legitimising its official function, wrote that "the film's success depended on the social problems involved, problems of responsibility towards a new generation." But he added, more acutely, that the film broke new ground because "it did not merely manipulate the life stories of the people involved in order to illustrate social problems but let the problems grow out of these life stories and their dramatic development."

The film's theme is the reformation—or rescue—of one of the bands of besprizorni (homeless children) who roamed, and terrorised, city streets in the difficult post-civil war years. The gang loyalties are torn between Zhigan, a sort of Fagin character played by Mikhail Zharov, who urges them to carry on thieving, and Sergeev, the head of a "work-commune," played by Nikolai Batalov, who tries to lead them into the paths of righteousness. The children themselves were not from a stage school but were inmates, or pupils, of work-communes (reform schools or rehabilitation centres in which students were expected to work on real projects—in the film, the building of a railroad). Despite their superb performances, not one of these kids later became a professional actor, not even Ivan Kyrlya, who plays the gang leader Mustafa, whose Asian features, far from inscrutable, vividly expressed every emotion. Kyrlya grew up to become a famous poet, writing in Mari, his native language.

Highly professional, the actors who played hero and villain gave performances that seem equally natural and true to life. Zharov was no Dickensian villain, but used his powerful physical presence to portray a man governed by instinct, a man able to attract as well as intimidate his teenage thieves. His moments of melancholy rapture, whenever he picks up his guitar, made the songs he sings top of the contemporary pops. Although accused therefore of romanticising thieves and their slang, Ekk had no Brechtian intention of updating the Beggar's Opera by introducing underworld folksongs as "production numbers": as he intended, they come across as spontaneous expressions of the character and are an integral part of the film.

Read more: Putyovka Zhizn V - Film (Movie) Plot and Review

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