Wednesday, 15 August 2012

Stanislav Govorukhin: Bless the Woman - Благословите женщину (2003)

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Director: Stanislav Govorukhin
Writers: Irina Grekova (novel), Vladimir Valutskiy
Stars: Svetlana Khodchenkova, Aleksandr Baluev, Irina Kupchenko

Bless the Woman is veteran director (and State Duma deputy) Stanislav Govorukhin’s first feature since 1999’s Sharpshooter of the Voroshilov Regiment. Like much of his output since the 1960s, Govorukhin’s latest film is an impeccably professional example of genre cinema, in this case melodrama. He demonstrated his command of screen genres as far back as 1966, with the action-adventure film Vertical, and subsequently showed prowess working within such other cinematic templates as the crime-drama (The Meeting Place Cannot Be Changed, 1979) and even the rape-revenge film (Sharpshooter). Bless the Woman also shows Govorukhin’s continuing penchant for using literary source material; the film is based on I. Grekova’s novel The Hotel Manager, and follows the director’s earlier adaptations of such varied works as Agatha Christie’s Ten Little Indians (1987), Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn (1981), and Robinson Crusoe (1972).

The plot of Bless the Woman is spread over an eventful span of Soviet history: 1935-1957. Along with art director Valentin Gidulianov and costume designer Regina Khomskaia, Govorukhin has convincingly recreated the physical and visual minutiae of 1930s-1950s Soviet life. In its detailed attention to the nation’s past, the film can thus also be placed beside Govorukhin’s trilogy of historical documentaries: This is No Way to Live, 1990; The Russia That We Lost, 1992; and The Great Criminal Revolution, 1994. Unlike those highly politicised film-exposés, however, Bless the Woman’s primary representational allegiances are aesthetic: to screen melodrama. The narrative, and the camera, are focused throughout on the heroine, Verochka, beginning with the opening shots of her emerging Venus-like from the sea foam. The Russian word for Venus, in fact – Venera – is evoked by the character’s own given name, Vera, which means "faith." The resulting associative links with both iconic female sensuality (Venera) and the more abstract value of higher belief (vera) indicate just what sort of Womanhood Verochka personifies. Govorukhin’s vision of the Feminine Ideal is not a particularly original one, but he does manage to combine the erotic and the sacred in interesting ways, for example a slow, close-up pan down Verochka’s bare torso while she showers that stops at her abdomen as she realizes that she is pregnant. That Govorukhin is centrally concerned here with the experience and significance of being female, specifically a Russian female of the 20th century, is also confirmed by the film’s title and dedication: "To our mothers and grandmothers." The film is structured as a series of episodes in Vera’s life, separated by intertitles indicating the date. When we first meet her, in 1935, Verochka is a 17-year old living with her mother, brother, and sister in a small seaside village. One morning, fresh from her daily swim, she meets Larichev, a Red Army colonel who is 15, perhaps 20 years her senior. After their second meeting on the beach, he informs her he will return in two weeks in order to take her away and marry her. Thus begins a pattern of military itinerancy and strict familial command structure that will define Verochka’s married life. In many ways, she is in the tradition of the long-suffering heroines of Russian literature and Soviet film, heroines defined primarily by a cluster of virtues such as obedience and loyalty to men, infinite patience, and unquestioning self-sacrifice.

Reviewed by Seth Graham©2004 in KinoKultura

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